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China Isn't Playing Nuclear Catch-Up; It's Capable of Surging Ahead

Weapons: Theft of secrets and its vigorous economic and technological growth dictate that the U.S. boost its own research.

April 30, 1999|JUSTINE A. ROSENTHAL | Justine A. Rosenthal is special assistant to the president of the Council on Foreign Relations

The intelligence community's report on China's acquisition of U.S. weapons information raises vital questions about U.S. national security that are not being addressed. The end of the Cold War has led us to worry less about nuclear dangers than in the past. But heightened global economic engagement should increase U.S. concern over China's theft of nuclear secrets, not dampen it. China's economic growth will enable it to spend more on its military and facilitate the implementation of nuclear technology obtained through legal and illegal means.

Spying and espionage are a part of great power politics. But as the panel that reviewed the intelligence community's report pointed out, "Decreases in [U.S.] research efforts have diminished the protective edge we could have over those using our information." Although we cannot stop espionage entirely--there were at least four documented cases of Chinese theft of American technology during the Reagan and Bush administrations--we must understand the enormous implications of nuclear theft in the post-Cold War world.

The intelligence community has confirmed that China has stolen, at a minimum: design information on several modern U.S. nuclear reentry vehicles, information on a variety of U.S. weapon design concepts and weaponization features including the neutron bomb, and enough information overall to allow China to focus on successful avenues of nuclear advancement. As America's technological advancements slow, China's quicken, making it far easier for China to close the gap.

The Chinese actions are perfectly rational. We spy on them, they spy on us, and in so doing, the Chinese are able to defend their second-strike capability. China wants to rule the Eastern Hemisphere and to do that it must have the military leverage to coerce the other major powers of the region, including the United States. China clearly will be a competitor in the future. The U.S. should take this into serious consideration now.

Part of the reality is that even without theft of American nuclear secrets, the Chinese would be able to obtain a great deal of information on our technology. We live in a world where every government has access to the Internet and dual-use weapons abound. The recent tests performed by India and Pakistan prove that we cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Since nuclear proliferation is inevitable, we need to stay ahead of the game.

The solution to the problem is twofold. First, we should continue to engage China economically, even though this engagement helps bolster China's military expenditures, because financial cooperation will lessen the chances of an immediate arms race and will maintain a level of transparency between the two countries. Second, we must heavily invest in our research and development programs to maintain our military advantage.

The problem we currently face is that the U.S. no longer performs nuclear tests, so our program is frozen and we have stopped developing new weapons. We should reconsider whether the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still to our advantage. The U.S. also should expand research with the aim of developing new technologies.

For those who miss the bipolar world of the past, we are well on our way to creating that world again, but this time with China as the other superpower. Without a large increase in the amount of money and importance the U.S. gives to nuclear and military research and development, the inevitable theft of secrets will do far more damage to our national security than what occurred during the Cold War.

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