Washington Post


Threats From China

By Dick Lugar
Wednesday, March 10, 1999; Page A23

Congress and the American public have been confronted with revelations that the Chinese stole important nuclear secrets from U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories in the mid-1980s. More specifically, the Chinese may have obtained highly classified information that greatly assisted their development of warheads small enough to be launched accurately from a single missile at multiple targets.

This could well be one of the most serious security breaches in the nation's history. Reps. Christopher Cox (chairman) and Norm Dicks (ranking Democrat) have pried the subject open through a bipartisan select House committee report. Presumably there will now be some accounting through our judicial system for persons guilty of those actions, which the CIA's former counterintelligence chief has labeled "far more damaging to the national security than Aldrich Ames." The Clinton administration's handling of the discovery of this espionage also will be examined.

But the immediate focus of the president and Congress must be the recognition that the United States may now be at significantly greater risk from a Chinese ballistic missile attack. This recognition must inform the continuing debates about the efficacy of a strategic partnership with China. We must reassess our policies toward technology transfer and weapons proliferation. And if we determine that the Chinese missile threat will expand rapidly, we will have to rethink the premises on which our missile defense strategy is based, too.

In recent years, many of our protests to the Chinese leadership have been directed at Chinese missile and other technological transfers to third countries. We now know that our agenda should have paid at least as much attention to what China was doing to develop its own long-range missiles capable of delivering multiple payloads against American targets. It is ironic that the same newspapers that describe the allegations surrounding the theft of our nuclear secrets contain stories on Chinese threats directed toward the United States if we dare consider including Taiwan in any regional or theater missile defense system.

Long before the Chinese prime minister arrives in Washington next month, we had best reach some conclusions on precisely what kind of relationship we should pursue with the Chinese. Decisions regarding how to address China's increasingly aggressive regional and nuclear posture will have to be made calmly but promptly. These decisions will not be easy or inexpensive.

Yet past espionage cases suggest that the temptation will be strong to do almost everything else but reconsider our national security posture, as we expose the guilty to condemnation and punishment. Lax security arrangements at our national laboratories have been debated for some time; charges about the theft of nuclear-related secrets go back to the 1980s; and the debates about how such thefts translated into Chinese military gains have gone on for many years.

Further complicating matters are the campaign abuses involving China that have been attributed to the White House. Some of these abuses involved extraordinarily bad judgment by the president himself.

For several years Congress has witnessed the stonewalling of attempts to pry loose documents and obtain the testimony of key participants in the scandal. Most Republican members of Congress discount the president's explanations of Chinese campaign contributions, the merits of his administration's licensing practices with respect to dual-use technology transfer to China and even the credibility of his own policy pronouncements vis-a-vis China.

It is imperative that the administration not yield to its impulses to place damage control above all else. We must have an open debate on China, and the development of a policy must be achieved in close consultation with Congress. The Clinton administration already had dug a very deep hole for itself on Capitol Hill with respect to China. That hole just got wider and deeper. Congressional misunderstanding and distrust grew over the weekend with succeeding newspaper accounts suggesting that the administration failed to disclose adequately the degree of nuclear peril from the Chinese. It will not be good enough for the administration to ask for congressional understanding on this one; it will have to earn it.

The Cox committee has done the country an important service; well-researched and timely press accounts have informed the American people. Now it is time for the president to step forward and give the American people a "damage assessment" and to display strong and immediate leadership by laying out the remedial measures necessary to restore our faith in the administration's defense policy. We need the truth about what has happened and a program to repair our national security posture.

The writer is senior senator from Indiana and the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.