The U.S. State Department called Zhu's comments "highly irresponsible." Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, greeted the news with concern too. Zhu's remarks "will only deteriorate China's relationship with Taiwan, the U.S., and other neighboring Asian countries," says Tung Li-wen, director of China affairs for Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party. It's unclear, though, whether Zhu's comments are an indication that China is changing its longstanding "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons. Zhu, who also heads the National Defense University's College of Defense Studies, stressed that he was not speaking for the government—an assertion echoed the next day by Assistant Foreign Minister Shen Guofang, who said Zhu was merely expressing his personal views.
Some found the assurances unconvincing. "Regardless of how many disclaimers there are, the fact is that a general in the P.L.A. made a highly provocative threat about using nuclear weapons first in a conflict with the U.S.," says Evan Medeiros, an expert on the Chinese military at the Rand Corp., a think tank in Virginia. "This reinforces longstanding American concerns about China's willingness to use force over Taiwan and the potential for nuclear escalation." Near the end of his comments last week, Zhu added that he was confident the U.S. and China would not go to war "unless the politicians of these two countries go mad." Keeping the generals in check might help, too.