A Chinese military official says Beijing will use nuclear weapons against the U.S. if the Americans attack the Asian nation in a fight over Taiwan.

“If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons,” Zhu Chenghu, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army, said at an official briefing, according to the Financial Times.

Today, however, the Chinese government distanced itself from the comments.

“What he talked about were just his personal views,” said Shen Guofang, an assistant minister of foreign affairs.

Speaking at a function organized for foreign journalists, Zhu noted the definition of China’s territory includes warships and aircraft.

“If the Americans are determined to interfere [then] we will be determined to respond,” Zhu said. “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds … of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

The Financial Times notes Zhu is a self-acknowledged “hawk” who has warned previously that China could strike the U.S. with long-range missiles. But his threat to use nuclear weapons in a conflict over Taiwan is the most specific by a senior Chinese official in nearly a decade.

Zhu is not the first Chinese official to mention the use of nuclear weapons first in a conflict over Taiwan.

Chas Freeman, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, said in 1999 that a PLA official had told him China could respond in kind to a nuclear strike by the U.S. in the event of a conflict with Taiwan.

“In the end you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei,” Freeman quoted this official as saying.

Though official U.S. policy on Taiwan is that it is part of mainland China – the “one China” policy – President Bush has said the U.S. would defend the island republic if it were attacked by Beijing.

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