Washington Post


China as It Is

Tuesday, March 9, 1999; Page A14

THE EVIDENCE brought out in a succession of press reports indicates that in the '80s China accelerated its missile program, by a degree yet to be determined, by means of spying on the U.S. missile labs. It is further alleged that in the '90s the Clinton administration softpedalled the effort to track the suspected espionage in part to serve the political goal of improving relations with Beijing.

Chinese in the Reagan period produced a breakthrough in designing small warheads for delivery by long-range missiles. This was only one of several instances of alleged Chinese espionage directed at the labs in that period. This was serious stuff. It reflected a failure of security: It took no less than an decade for American counterintelligence to identify a Taiwan-born American scientist as a suspect, and he was fired just yesterday. It also resulted in the United States strengthening a country of currently uncertain and conceivably hostile strategic orientation in the future.

No less dismaying is the attitude the Clinton team seems to have taken before a belatedly energized government finally, after mid-1997, caught on to the scope of the spying and started putting basic security reforms into place. Something that looks like delay and ineptness marked earlier attempts to get to the bottom of things. This conduct raises several sets of suspicions that are yet to be clarified. Was the American response due to a wish for a pre-electoral burial of charges that official Chinese had sent funds to the Clinton campaign in 1996? To a desire not to interfere with American high-tech exports? To an intent to protect the favored Clinton policy of "engagement" with China?

The CIA and Congress are working up reports. Meanwhile, it is hard to avoid two impressions. Successive administrations were excessively trusting in seeking to open closed countries by unilateral displays of American crown jewels. Then, the Clinton administration yet again comes under a heavy burden to show it is prepared to deal not with the China of its fond hopes but with China as it is.