New York Times

The China Agenda

New York, Sunday, May 30, 1999


Washington's battered relations with Beijing suffered serious new damage last week from the Cox committee report on Chinese theft of American nuclear and missile secrets. Working ties will have to be rebuilt, but on more realistic foundations than before. While it still makes sense to encourage China to open its economy and play a constructive role in international affairs, Washington must give clear priority to protecting American security.

The report showed that for the past 20 years Beijing has exploited its commercial and scientific exchanges with the United States -- and lax security at American nuclear labs -- to learn how to increase the power and range of its nuclear arsenal. During those same years, Washington unwisely relaxed controls over militarily sensitive exports to increase opportunities for commercial gain, a tendency that grew during the Clinton Administration. Congress and the White House must move quickly to restore better balance to American policy.

That does not require freezing discussions with China on every subject from trade to Kosovo, as some in Congress now propose. It is in America's interest to complete talks on Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization as soon as possible. Meanwhile, China's favorable trade status under American law should be renewed for another year.

But changes are urgently needed in other areas to address the specific security problems uncovered by the Cox report. The Senate made a promising start on this last week. A bipartisan majority approved a useful package of measures introduced by Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader. These included increased Pentagon monitoring of satellite sales to China and a strengthened role for intelligence agencies in reviewing export licenses. The Senate package also provides for more rigorous security training at the nuclear labs, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation supervising employee background checks. It also requires the Central Intelligence Agency to report to Congress on foreign efforts to steal sensitive American technologies.

Satellites and their launch by Chinese rockets require particular scrutiny, since they incorporate technology that can be used in ballistic missiles. Advanced computer sales also need careful review because these powerful machines can be used to simulate missile trajectories and nuclear weapons tests. Ideally, all countries capable of exporting such militarily sensitive goods should adopt common restrictions. But absent that, the United States, the world leader in advanced technology, must tighten its own controls.

Nuclear lab security can be improved without compromising civil liberties or scapegoating Chinese-Americans. All lab employees doing sensitive weapons or computer work must be carefully vetted and supervised. Those known to have shared inappropriate information with foreign colleagues or to have copied restricted files onto insecure computers should be excluded from such work and denied top-secret clearances. Clearances should be administratively suspended whenever a lab employee comes under investigation.

Academic interchange, through publications and conferences, is essential to the labs' scientific work. Additionally, exchange visits by foreign scientists, including those from Russia and China, are essential to arms control programs that strengthen American security. But all exchanges must be carefully planned and monitored to avoid leakage of military secrets.

Clearer lines of jurisdictional authority should be established among Government agencies responsible for nuclear and computer security. Top Justice Department officials need to be made aware of and take charge of suspected cases of nuclear espionage. The F.B.I. and C.I.A. both need to develop greater expertise on Chinese methods. Continued engagement with China is a necessity. But it can be pursued without carelessly exposing American military secrets.