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The Cox Report's 'Dirty Little Secret'
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Jonathan D. Pollack

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To the uninitiated reader, the Cox Report presents an ominous picture of pervasive, sustained Chinese espionage and illicit technology acquisition breathtaking in its scope, scale and effectiveness. The document alleges extreme laxity in U.S. security procedures and a seriously flawed export control process, both of which were purportedly exploited by China's intelligence organizations and weapons manufacturers. In the committee's view, these actions were knowingly abetted by American scientists prepared to disclose U.S. nuclear weapons secrets and by American aerospace firms intent on securing commercial advantage with China, irrespective of the national security consequences.

Given the substantial excisions in the declassified version of the report, it is impossible to fully assess the potential consequences of China's acquisition of U.S. nuclear weapons design and technical information, however Beijing acquired such data. The report's judgments are sweeping and unequivocal, but the evidence supporting these claims seems far more limited and ambiguous, suggesting that the compromise of information may have been far less extensive than asserted by the report's authors.

But the study's shortcomings extend well beyond its inferences and assertions; they concern its basic premises and assumptions. Despite the document's prodigious bulk and detail, it is remarkably ahistorical. In particular, it is almost totally devoid of reference to the political, military, intelligence, and dual-use technology ties with China assiduously pursued at the highest levels of the U.S. government during the 1970s and 1980s.

Specific espionage claims must be investigated fully, and the acute lapses in security procedures at U.S. weapons laboratories undoubtedly require immediate attention. But instead of telling a larger story, the committee simply accumulates disparate information from an array of sources from which worst-case judgments were then drawn. As a consequence, media coverage focused almost exclusively (and uncritically) on the most sensational allegations, failing to ask how and why the United States and China were drawn into ever-closer dealings with one another.

Amid the report's dire claims and forecasts, a dirty little secret goes entirely unmentioned. From the very onset of the Sino-U.S. relationship in the early 1970s, successive Republican and Democratic administrations believed that the enhancement of Chinese power—as a counterbalance to Soviet power—was in the national security interest of the United States, and persistently sought to advance this goal in the ensuing two decades. This U.S. commitment was repeatedly imparted to senior Chinese officials in both word and deed. The United States was intent on strengthening relations in a host of highly sensitive areas and shaping China's expectations of the United States and its pursuit of U.S. high technology. The Chinese may well have exploited these opportunities by all available means, but they were walking through a door that the U.S. government had long since decided to open.

The U.S. negotiating record with China amply confirms this judgment. From the earliest years of Sino-American relations, senior U.S. officials (including then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger) provided Chinese interlocutors with highly sensitive U.S. intelligence data on Soviet military capabilities and deployments—without the Chinese having ever solicited this information. The Nixon administration sought to coordinate its diplomatic and security actions with China in Vietnam, in South Asia, and in relation to Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Under President Ford, the United States explicitly encouraged major European allies to relax their export policies toward China, including on weapons sales; the Chinese were regularly kept informed of these actions. U.S. policymakers also sought to find the means to permit sales of U.S. computers to China that it would not export to the Soviet Union.

Under the Carter administration, these ties broadened and deepened. The United States provided Chinese officials with regular intelligence briefings; both countries also undertook active intelligence collaboration (in part to monitor Soviet compliance with the SALT accords). Other programs heightened collaboration against Soviet actions in Afghanistan and Vietnamese actions in Cambodia. These activities accelerated further under the Reagan administration, including the provision (with Chinese assistance) of U.S. Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to mujaheddin insurgents resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But the Reagan administration's decision to expedite technology transfer to China bears most directly on the report's findings. As the Chinese sought to develop a civilian industrial base where none or little had existed before, technology transfer from the United States was pivotal. Much of this effort involved technologies and know-how with inherent relevance to both civilian and military programs. It included provision of a massive array of technical and design data for assembly of McDonnell-Douglas aircraft in Shanghai, including an MD-82 coproduction agreement signed in 1985—the largest U.S.-Chinese industrial project of the past two decades.

The Cox Report documents Chinese violations of U.S. export control regulations in the purchase and disposition of advanced machine tools from McDonnell-Douglas. But the larger collaborative effort (designed to meet exacting Federal Aviation Administration certification standards for indigenous production of commercial aircraft in China) was comprehensive in its scope. By enhancing a wide array of technical skills and industrial-technology applications required in aircraft manufacture, the project facilitated the skill base of the Chinese aviation industry as a whole, including the military sector.

The report also fails to acknowledge that the Reagan administration initiated foreign military sales (FMS) programs to China, including sales to military end-users, provision of technical know-how to Chinese military research and development, and active collaboration between U.S. defense contractors and Chinese counterparts. By 1987, these programs comprised avionics packages for Chinese combat aircraft, sales of anti-submarine warfare torpedos and gas turbine engines for the Chinese navy (the latter still in use on Chinese destroyers), sales of artillery-locating radar and the upgrading of artillery production capabilities. Other transactions included sales of Blackhawk helicopters and an array of non-lethal military equipment.

Successive U.S. administrations were not oblivious to the multiple implications of U.S. technology transfer to China. The commercial links were undoubtedly important, but the security implications were also inescapable. A more militarily credible China would be better able to counter Soviet power, and it would require the Soviet Union to deploy additional military assets in Asia. It was also assumed that (in return for U.S. technological assistance) the Chinese would exercise political and military restraint in relation to Taiwan, Japan and Korea.

The United States therefore saw China as an asset rather than a threat to U.S. security interests. Senior Chinese leaders acknowledged Chinese industrial and military backwardness to U.S. officials and corporate representatives, and they also made clear the longer-term Chinese intention to emerge as an advanced industrial, technological, scientific and military power. The Chinese repeatedly urged the United States to further relax its export control policies, and likely assumed that the United States would quietly facilitate Chinese efforts to acquire an extensive array of dual-use technologies.

Additional developments throughout the latter half of the 1980s—including purchase of more advanced computers, acquisition of sophisticated machine tools, prospective sales of nuclear reactors, and an explosive growth in the training of Chinese scientists and students in the United States—attested to the consolidation of U.S.-China relations, with an ever-increasing focus on advancing China's technical and industrial capabilities, many with potential relevance to China's military modernization.

In addition, following the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the Reagan administration approved launches of U.S. satellites from Chinese rockets. It was hardly a state secret that Chinese launch vehicles (the Long March 3-B and 2-E) were derived from the same family of missiles used to deliver Chinese nuclear weapons, and that the space launch program was overseen by Chinese military personnel. Underwriting the costs of Chinese launches (there have been approximately 30 launches involving U.S. aerospace companies since 1988) undoubtedly enhanced Chinese space capabilities.

In the aftermath of several egregious launch failures in 1995 and 1996, Hughes, Loral and other major aerospace companies reviewed Chinese assessments of these failures, though Chinese aerospace personnel bristled at the implied criticisms of their programs offered by foreign experts. Alleged violations of U.S. export control provisions and security procedures by several of these companies remain under investigation. But U.S. companies had an obvious incentive to encourage the Chinese to pinpoint and remedy design and manufacturing flaws in the launch vehicles, since further catastrophic failures would have jeopardized their collaborative programs. These reviews by U.S. engineers and technical personnel very likely reinforced modifications in launch vehicle designs that the Chinese themselves had begun to consider. So construed, the Chinese benefitted from U.S. technical expertise. But it defies comprehension that it was in anyone's interest to depend on unreliable launch vehicles.

However, the Tiananmen crisis of 1989 had shattered the working consensus between the executive branch and the Congress on closer U.S.-China relations. Equally significant, the collapse of the Soviet Union eroded the strategic assumptions underlying U.S.-Chinese defense collaboration. The Bush administration sought to retain some of these dealings, but changes in U.S. strategy were already underway, including a substantial augmentation of U.S. military sales to Taiwan as the Chinese increasingly pursued weapons purchases from Russia. The Clinton administration, with intermittent success and also some major setbacks, sought to restore a modicum of civility in Sino-U.S. military relations, but it was not prepared to revisit the post-Tiananmen sanctions precluding military sales to China. At the same time, the scope of U.S. defense links with Taiwan continued to grow during the 1990s.

Thus, the Cox Report appears when the strategic divergence between the United States and China has widened, and when the Chinese are increasingly assertive about longer-term modernization goals that are no longer animated by animosities with Moscow. Indeed, Russia and China share common cause in seeking to inhibit, or at least caution, the United States from the unilateral exercise of its military power. One does not need to subscribe to the more conspiratorial Chinese renderings of U.S. strategy to discern the essential Chinese logic: officials in Beijing see the United States as intent on impeding the growth of Chinese national power and the enhancement of its strategic position.

Given the deliberate pace of Chinese weapons development, it is far from certain that Beijing deems a major acceleration of its weapons programs as either feasible or warranted. Indeed, China's enhancement of its strategic weapons capabilities has remained measured and incremental. If the Cox Committee's claims of Chinese possession of a full array of U.S. nuclear weapons information are accurate, it makes little sense that Beijing would have failed to exploit this knowledge. But if the Chinese conclude that the United States views China in essentially malign terms, an enhanced Chinese national defense effort, quite possibly including accelerated modernization of Chinese strategic weapons capabilities, seems very likely.

But the much larger transformation underway in China concerns the country's mushrooming involvement in global commerce, not its military development. Even as many in the United States exhibit increased unease about the implications of the growth of Chinese military power, the scale and scope of U.S.-Chinese commercial and technological interactions has never been greater. Information and technology flows between the two countries have accelerated dramatically over the past decade; as a consequence, the provision of high-end U.S. technologies to China far exceeds the undertakings of the 1980s. Short of a draconian effort to restrict these transactions and to pursue far more binding multilateral export controls, the momentum of these developments will not be slowed significantly, let alone reversed. Moreover, any such effort would very likely prove self-defeating, both politically and commercially.

Indeed, less than three weeks after release of the report, the committee chairman, Representative Christopher Cox, endorsed a major relaxation of constraints on U.S. computer exports to China. By consenting to a fivefold increase in the allowable speed of computers to be licensed for export to China, he acceded to inescapable commercial and technological realities, even as the committee's report had spoken in worrisome tones about the diverse applications such higher-speed computers could permit.

Although the United States still endeavors to fence off (both literally and figuratively) those activities with immediate national security implications, it is increasingly difficult to square this circle. In the final analysis, the dire tone of the Cox Report says far more about the United States than it does about China. Resolving this fundamental ambivalence about the growth of Chinese power may not prove possible, but the effects of an ominously worded document could make the search for a tolerable center of gravity in the Sino-American relationship ever more difficult.


Jonathan D. Pollack is a senior advisor for international policy at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California.

Posted: April 1, 1999