The Cox Report and Chinese Espionage: Opinions Differ

Released in declassified form shortly after the May 7 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and further antagonizing Washington-Beijing relations, the Cox report specifies the nature of the nuclear technology secrets that the Chinese allegedly stole from America’s top four nuclear laboratories. The Cox Committee contends that China has been collecting highly sensitive information for decades and concludes that China’s acquisition of United States nuclear design information gives it the ability to quickly achieve military parity with the United States. Critics, however, say that the Cox Report was written using a variety of conditional phrases, lacks a thorough representation of academic experts on military issues, and presents insufficient evidence. The criticisms have led to counter-arguments and mixed reviews nationwide.

China Threat: Perception vs. Reality

The Cox Report has heightened fears in the United States of the perceived "China threat" and given the Republicans in Congress new ammunition with which to criticize the Clinton Administration’s policy of engagement with China. The report claims that China now has the knowledge to produce all the latest American nuclear warheads. Some analysts believe that this knowledge gives China the means to soon become a nuclear power comparable to the United States with the ability to fight wars readily and accurately if need be. Dealing with such a potential shift in the balance of power has Congress vigorously debating the best means to handle the situation.

However, other analysts point out that the Cox Report exaggerates China’s capabilities and glosses over many important issues. It does not examine the reality of China’s present nuclear and military capabilities and exactly how much effort will be needed for China to create military parity with the United States, espionage efforts aside. As a brief summary, the chart on the right compares nuclear and missile capability of the United States and China. The United States has more than 10,000 nuclear warheads of all types; China has less than 500. Further, future conflict with China is likely to occur in the sea lanes surrounding China’s border. This means that naval and air forces, where China is weakest, would be of vital importance. In fact, at present China’s naval and airlift forces combined can only transport about 20,000 troops. Other factors also handicap China’s military. Despite the growth of Chinese defense spending, according to an article in the Washington Post on June 20 by Bates Gill and Michael O’Hanlon, the total is only around $65 billion--less than one quarter of the U.S. budget. The Chinese army, which is currently twice the size of the U.S. army, therefore is forced to spread significantly fewer funds over a far greater number of soldiers. China’s defense-related industries are also highly inefficient and plagued with problems similar to those of debt-ridden SOEs.

The Cox Report also does not consider China’s motivation for increasing its nuclear arsenal. Historically, China has been committed to a minimal nuclear deterrent and has held to a "no first use" policy. Particularly in the past two decades, China has dedicated most of its resources to economic reform and development. Many China experts feel that China must continue to put economic priorities first in order to deal with the ever-increasing problems associated with economic restructuring. On the other hand, China also realizes that America’s Theater Missile Defense (TMD) program, as advertised, renders its own arsenal worthless and ineffective. Further, Chinese officials have stated that if TMD is deployed in the region to protect Taiwan, China will suspend relations with the U.S. Thus, with the United States pursuing TMD, China may be tempted to use any information acquired from the United States to advance its nuclear weapons program. A regional arms race, which is in no one’s national interest, could result.

Who’s to Blame?

Aside from these issues, the Cox Report asserts that China has acquired a great deal of information that it could use to significantly update its nuclear weapons program if it so chooses. Unfortunately, United States intelligence sources insist no one can prove what information, and how much, was stolen from any one location. This lack of specific evidence makes it unlikely that anyone will face charges of disclosing classified information to unauthorized people.

In an effort to indicate sources of espionage, some members of Congress called on both Attorney General Janet Reno and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to resign for failing to aggressively react to earlier reports of security breaches. Berger is accused of being too soft on China, and Reno is criticized for her department’s failure to investigate espionage at Los Alamos or Chinese influence-buying at the White House.

In January, Former senator Warren Rudman, chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, was called on to investigate profound inefficiencies of the Department of Energy’s existing security apparatus in the nation’s nuclear laboratories, and report on what changes need to be made to tighten laboratory security. The Rudman Report, released in May, concluded that too many bureaucratic levels prevented effective communication from the labs to higher authority. He recommended that several Energy departments be eliminated or significantly downsized, and that an Agency for Nuclear Stewardship (ANS) under Energy, responsible for nuclear laboratory security, be created. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Bill Richardson initially rejected this concept, but in mid-July accepted the proposal as long as the ANS remains clearly under his control. To many critics, Richardson’s hesitation over this issue appears to make him the man upholding the position of the Clinton Administration on this issue.

U.S. Domestic Implications

The White House accepts many of the Cox Report recommendations that focus on the need to tighten security at America’s nuclear laboratories, but the Clinton Administration does not accept the conclusions that China’s acquisition of United States technology means that China is very close to military and nuclear parity with the United States. Nevertheless, the perceived threat must be dealt with. Many analysts advocate a mode of disarmament and economic engagement. China has promised to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty concurrently with America. Not being able to test any new nuclear weapons would nullify China’s espionage efforts and guarantee the United States military advantage. This approach would also posit China more like the competitor that it truly is. Unfortunately, United States domestic politics often prevents the White House from making the smarter move. Acrimonious debates over China policy continue to polarize Congress. The most immediate issue that divides Congress is the need for developing TMD. Supporters of the TMD program site the North Korean missile development and proliferation threat that plagues the region as the main reason for needing TMD in East Asia. Critics, on the other hand, draw a connection between the promotion of the elementary TMD program and significant campaign contributions from the defense industry. Some members of Congress tend to dismiss the reality that the TMD defense initiative is prompting China’s increased military buildup. Yet it is imperative that Congress recognizes TMD’s potential role in compelling China to modernize its nuclear and other military programs. Treated as a threat, China may very well do its best to become one.

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