A CHINESE military officer has raised the spectre of nuclear weapons and warned Australia not to side with the United States and Japan as a territorial dispute in the East China Sea continues to escalate.
Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, of the National Defence University, blamed America's ''orchestration'' and Japan's ''militarism'' for rising tensions over disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
''America is the global tiger and Japan is Asia's wolf and both are now madly biting China,'' Colonel Liu said. ''Of all the animals, Chinese people hate the wolf the most.''
China was a peaceful nation but it would fight to the death if seriously attacked, he said.
Both sides and the US have in recent days traded strident warnings over alleged territorial incursions, while holding out hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough. Diplomats privately warn of a growing risk of accident or miscalculation.
Asked about the People's Liberation Army fighting capability, Colonel Liu referred to the PLA department that houses China's strategic missile and nuclear arsenal.
He raised a hypothetical scenario that he said would justify a nuclear attack, while clarifying that he was not calling upon China to take such measures.
''If this Japanese wolf again attacks America's Pearl Harbour or Australia's Darwin, how do you know it wouldn't receive another nuclear bomb?'' Colonel Liu said. ''The world would hail if Japan receives such a blow.
''I don't want to mention China here, as it is sensitive,'' he added.
Colonel Liu is one of a group of outspoken hawkish PLA officers who do not claim to speak on behalf of the leadership but are given licence to speak stridently on some issues.
Foreign diplomats say they can serve to provide unofficial warnings, test foreign reactions and rally nationalistic support for the Communist Party or sections of it.
Colonel Liu directly warned Australia not to follow the US or Japan into any military conflict with China.
He said Australia should play the role of a ''kind-hearted lamb'' and China would discourage it from being led astray.
''Australia should never play the jackal for the tiger or dance with the wolf,'' he said.
Colonel Liu asked that his message be conveyed directly to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as she prepares to deliver a major speech on national security. Like her predecessors, Ms Gillard has maintained that Australia will not have to choose between its economic and security interests.
''American hegemony is not at its dawn and not at its zenith,'' Colonel Liu said. ''It is at its sunset and night is coming.''
A consultant to the Pentagon and author of The Rise of China Versus The Logic of Strategy, Edward Luttwak, said China was ''grossly overestimating'' its military capability and underestimating the regional response.
He said deep geopolitical forces were at work that could be managed but not reversed.
''Militant nationalism is the only possible substitute for ex-communists who seek to retain power,'' Mr Luttwak said.
''And for the US, its entire political culture mandates the containment of China's new territorial revisionism.''
In separate written comments Colonel Liu said the US was building ''a mini-NATO'' to contain China, with the US and Japan at its core and Australia within its orbit.