Washington Post


Nuclear pickpocket

Wednesday, May 26, 1999; Page A28

UNDER U.S. LAW, the administration must conduct "end-user" checks to ensure that high-powered computers exported to China are not used for military purposes. China, however, rarely consents to such checks, and when it does, insists that they be conducted by Chinese officials. Yet, a bipartisan House committee reported yesterday, "this obduracy has had little consequence." The Clinton administration has approved the export of more and more such computers; in the first three quarters of 1998, nine times as many were exported as during the previous seven years.

This is one of many fruits of the engagement policy that President Clinton again yesterday defended. It is a policy based on the premise that China is a strategic partner, not a potential foe, and that the best way to ensure its continuing friendship is to accommodate to a large extent its demands and requests. It is also a policy, pursued by Republican and Democratic administrations alike, that has been more responsive to U.S. commercial interests than to U.S. national security needs, according to an 872-page report published yesterday by the House Select Committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). Mr. Cox, Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington and their seven colleagues assert that the damage to the United States is serious and ongoing.

The report maintains that China during the past 20 years has "stolen" information on the design of every nuclear warhead currently in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal. It also has illicitly obtained classified technology useful for building missiles, attacking submarines and conducting other military tasks that could threaten the United States, Taiwan or U.S. forces in Asia. Virtually every one of the 80,000 Chinese visitors to the United States each year is told to collect some kind of information, the report says. So are many of the 100,000 students and academics based in this country and the 3,000 corporations with open or concealed Chinese connections. "No other country has succeeded in stealing so much from the United States," Mr. Cox says.

When a senior bureaucrat first tried to warn Congress of a possible security leak from a nuclear weapons lab, he says he was told not to testify. Later the administration suggested that any serious damage had occurred under previous presidents. When that assertion proved untenable, the administration insisted that it had reacted to the risk alertly and resolutely. But in fact its response was halting.

Ineptitude may have played a part in this apparent laxity. So, perhaps, did pressure from the business community, forever urging looser controls on exports lest other nations' companies get a leg up in the Chinese market. But it seems likely that Mr. Clinton's view of China as a relatively benign strategic partner also played a role. "Engagement," the report makes clear, is not one decision but dozens: to liberalize export controls, to allow the Commerce Department rather than the State Department to oversee satellite exports, to permit corporations to police their own security, to allow the Defense Department to sell high-tech military goods as "scrap" to Chinese companies, and so on. All of these decisions flow from a mind-set that the best way to keep China from turning hostile in the future is to show no signs of suspicion now.

Finding a balance between openness and caution will never be easy. Those same thousands of Chinese who represent an alleged security threat while here also offer hope for warmer U.S.-Chinese ties and better understanding in the future. Clamping down on information flows within U.S. nuclear labs might stymie some Chinese spies but would also slow American scientific progress. And the Chinese threat should not be overestimated; its arsenal of two dozen strategic nuclear missiles is no match for America's 6,000 strategic warheads.

But the nuclear modernization that China is likely to accomplish in the next few years, to which the United States is depicted as unwitting patron, could significantly affect the regional balance of power, especially for Taiwan. China's long-range goals, including the annexation of Taiwan and becoming the predominant power in Asia, do not coincide with U.S. interests, the committee report argues. It does not follow that the United States should treat China as an enemy. But neither does it make sense for the United States to open its strategic pockets and allow China to help itself.