With little evidence and flawed logic, the Cox Report has concluded that China, exploiting purloined U.S. nuclear weapons design information, can now match U.S. nuclear weapons technology and emerge as a major nuclear threat to the United States. The report, presented in three lavishly illustrated volumes suitable for coffee table display, is clearly designed to hype a new Chinese nuclear missile threat rather than objectively examine the extent and implications of alleged Chinese nuclear espionage. Whatever the truth about the extent of the espionage, this extreme worst-case assessment is grossly misleading and threatens rational U.S. diplomatic and defense policy toward Beijing.
The report's case rests primarily on a reference in a classified Chinese document to certain aspects of the design of the Trident D-5 missile's W-88 thermonuclear warhead, which indicates Chinese access to classified information from an unidentified source. However, Cox Committee member Representative John Spratt (D-SC), in an act of considerable political courage, has revealed the paucity of evidence supporting the report's stark conclusions and pointed out that the Cox Committee had no evidence that the Chinese had actually obtained any blueprints or detailed engineering specifications on the W-88 or any other U.S. thermonuclear weapon. This important conclusion was also reached by the intelligence community in its damage assessment of the material presented in the classified version of the report.
While China would undoubtedly profit from the details of the W-88, Beijing would pay a steep price to make a "Chinese copy" of the sophisticated W-88, which does not match China's strategic requirements or its existing technology infrastructure. The W-88 is carefully designed to fit inside the D-5's slender reentry vehicle, which is necessary to achieve extremely high accuracy against hard targets. The Chinese ICBM force, numbering only 20 missiles, is clearly intended as a minimal deterrent against city targets where high accuracy is irrelevant. The report fails to recognize that China, with a substantial nuclear weapons program and 35 years' experience since its first test in 1964, already has the ability to develop small thermonuclear warheads based on its own technology. Such weapons would be suitable for China's anticipated, more survivable mobile ICBM or for future MIRVed missiles if it decides to develop them. Consequently, even if Beijing did obtain the detailed blueprints for the W-88, which is pure speculation, this would not change the limited Chinese nuclear threat to the United States that has existed for almost 20 years.
The report's feigned outrage with China's alleged efforts to steal U.S. nuclear secrets is an exercise in naivete or hypocrisy by members of Congress, who approve some $30 billion annually for U.S. intelligence activities and press for the increased use of spies. At the same time, while recognizing the pandemic nature of espionage, one cannot tolerate violations of trust by persons in sensitive positions or inadequate security practices that facilitate such actions. The report has created a cottage industry of recommendations on how to solve this difficult problem. But the answer certainly does not lie in creating insulated, Soviet-style nuclear cities where many of the brightest U.S. scientists would not work.
U.S.-Chinese relations have been dealt a serious blow by the report's implicit message that the United States should not do business with a country that presents a serious nuclear threat to U.S. security and engages in espionage against the U.S. nuclear establishment. However, there is no reason to believe China is any more of a threat today, or will be in the foreseeable future, than it has been for many years; and the charges of espionage, if true, are only the latest manifestation of an international environment where gentlemen read each other's mail whenever possible. Since President Nixon's opening of relations with China, every U.S. president has sought to improve U.S.-Chinese relations. In the interests of U.S. security, this policy should continue to be pursued on its own merits and not be undercut by hyped assessments of the Chinese nuclear threat or espionage activities.
If the Cox Committee is as concerned about Chinese espionage as it professes, it is puzzling that it chose to reject Spratt's proposal to recommend ratification of the CTB Treaty, which would prevent future Chinese tests from exploiting alleged purloined information. Experts agree that no rational state would risk producing thermonuclear weapons based on information, including even blueprints and full technical specifications, obtained from another state without tests, and would not rely on another country's computer codes to simulate the detonation of a device as a surrogate for actual testing. The U.S. Senate now has the opportunity and responsibility to correct this glaring omission by promptly ratifying the test ban treaty, which Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms has held hostage—to advance his own agenda—for nearly two years.