Friend or foe?

The appropriate U.S. reaction to new allegations of Chinese espionage depends on whether China is an adversary or an ally.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
May 26, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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"Marginal." That's how former Reagan administration appointee and defense policy analyst Lawrence Korb describes the significance and scope of the damage to U.S. national security revealed Tuesday in the declassified version of the Cox Report on Chinese espionage. However, such caution was hardly the norm around Washington. MSNBC headlines screamed about China's "insatiable appetite" for secret American technology. CNN bellowed that China was using purloined American technology to "fulfill [its] international agenda." Political opportunists like GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes demanded that China's "punishment must be swift and strong."

And this is only the beginning. The release of the Cox Report on Chinese espionage is certain to open a season of political jousting between Democrats and Republicans, which may well last through the 2000 elections. The report (most of which had already been leaked to the New York Times) details how three decades of spying has allowed the People's Republic of China to acquire all sorts of American technology for uses ranging from missile guidance to nuclear weaponry. The saving grace for the Clinton administration is that whatever the Chinese have been doing, they seem to have been doing at least since the Reagan years, and probably since the U.S. and China normalized relations in the mid-1970s.


The White House has been holding onto that fact like a life preserver in stormy waters. Notwithstanding the Clinton administration's efforts to save face, the issue is playing into the GOP's hands. For years Republicans have been looking for a way to make national security issues once again a central axis of American politics -- and the Chinese "threat" looks like a good way of doing that.

What makes the situation more complicated -- both for the Clinton administration and its more rabid political opponents -- is that, by all accounts, Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., and the committee's senior Democrat, Norm Dicks of Washington, ran their investigation in a laudably non-partisan manner. The final report eschews the wackier conspiracy theories linking Clinton administration campaign finance irregularities to weapons technology transfers. Instead, it provides a detailed account of how China successfully acquired American technology through a combination of old-fashioned spying and aggressive efforts to import so-called "dual use" technologies that can be put to use for military means.

Without a thorough knowledge of the various weapons technologies involved and the current state of U.S.-China relations, it is difficult to untangle the hype from the reality. This is particularly so since the waters have already been deeply politicized. Has the balance of power between the two countries really changed? Or is this just a bump in the road -- the normal process by which every country seeks to gain the latest technology by hook or by crook?


The answer turns on how you imagine the future of U.S.-Chinese relations over the coming decades. If the United States and China really are military opponents contesting future strategic dominance in East Asia, then every loss of American military technology really is a disaster. But if you imagine the future relationship to be more mixed -- with as much cooperation as confrontation -- then the picture looks different. Analysts like Korb, who downplay the importance of the technology transfers, point to the overwhelming American superiority in nuclear weapons and argue that any weapons technology gained by China must be seen in this light. At present the United States has an arsenal of some 7,000 nuclear warheads, while China has fewer than 25. After all, as Korb told me on Monday, the Chinese "have fewer nuclear weapons than the French."

Not everyone is as sanguine as Korb. Elizabeth Economy, a China Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who is a strong proponent of engagement, nevertheless calls the extent of the technology transfer "terrible."

What is most unfortunate about the release of the Cox Report is not so much the information it reveals. That should have a salutary and constructive effect on U.S. policy. It is, rather, the likelihood that it will become another example of how U.S.-China relations continue to be driven by episodic and feverish crises rather than by reasoned and considered thought. The Cox Report does raise pressing, critical questions about American foreign policy. But they are unlikely to get a thorough hearing in the current climate of charges and counter-charges.


The main issue raised by the report is how the United States should balance the imperatives of trade and national defense. With increasing economic and technological integration, this is not just a matter of making sure we don't print the blueprints for our nuclear weapons. Numerous "dual use" technologies are used in seemingly innocuous items but also have military applications. Scientific exchanges in our research facilities also raise complex issues. The United States doesn't conduct such scientific exchanges simply as acts of national generosity. They are intended to increase our own knowledge as well. As Korb points out, "All knowledge does not reside in the United States."

Striking the right balance is of great importance. The Cox Report shows that we have not been doing a particularly good job of it. Protecting our military secrets is no less important just because China may not pose an immediate military threat to the United States. But the Chinese have a distressingly poor record of weapons proliferation -- sometimes selling nuclear and missile technology to rogue states around the world.


While the report pinpoints needed changes to the ways we safeguard our military technology, it begs more questions than it answers about U.S.-China relations. Just because the Chinese have been spying on us and trying to acquire our technology, it does not necessarily follow that their intentions toward us are hostile. As every diplomat knows, all great powers spy on each other. As Elizabeth Economy points out, the differences between Chinese "capabilities and intentions" are critical. Already, there has been a distressing tendency to make a big leap from one to the other.

Just as it was prior to the release of the Cox Report, the central question of U.S.-China relations is whether the two countries are, fundamentally, antagonists or whether their interests in common override the ones that divide them. NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia has exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions. A less-well-publicized American snub over Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization hasn't helped.

What makes each country seem inscrutable and sometimes duplicitous to the other is that neither country really speaks with one voice or one mind. Each has its hard-liners who doubt the basic good faith of the other country's leaders and believe that only confrontation is possible. Both countries also have moderates who believe in mutual cooperation. The problem is that each country's hard-liners, when in the ascendant, tend to reinforce each other -- simultaneously validating and realizing the worst fears of the other. We may now be in store for another of those periods.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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