Back to Important Issues

Back to TSEA

   Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA)

America Helped Arm China. Now What?

By Henry Sokolski

A26, The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, May 25, 1999

Last June, when a special House committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.) first examined news of U.S. transfers of militarily sensitive technology to China, it posed three questions: What was transferred? Who was to blame? What should be done?

Ten months and some 700 pages later, most of the answers are in. The Cox report, being released today in a declassified version, details increased sales of advanced U.S. computers to Chinese research and design bureaus, expanded Chinese access to U.S. nuclear laboratories, ever more advanced transfers of U.S. satellite launch know-how, lax or nonexistent U.S. monitoring of militarily useful exports, and outright Chinese military espionage. All of this has helped the People’s Liberation Army acquire in less than 10 years the military technology the U.S. needed nearly a half century to develop.

Heady Stuff

This is heady stuff. So much so that even Energy Secretary Bill Richardson concedes that the Cox Report’s findings are "scary" and that we must assume the worst concerning what China secured. Indeed, the worry in Washington is so great, there may even be potential for what’s become all too rare- a genuine, bipartisan moment. I say potential because so far most congressional critics responding to the report have limited themselves to either assessing fault in order to fire someone (such as Attorney General Janet Reno or National Security Adviser Samuel Berger) or establishing new security procedures to prevent any further Chinese military technology thefts. However warranted these responses may be, both are sure to raise partisan hackles.

Far more important, neither response even begins to address the threat the U.S. and its Asian allies will face if only half the Cox report’s findings are true: a China that in 10 years could wield sufficient strategic clout to marginalize U.S. forces in Asia, intimidate our allies there, and propel Japan, Taiwan and South Korea into an arms rivalry with Beijing that would be sure to go nuclear and ballistic.

Why is this likely? Right now China has no more than 20 nuclear warheads that can reach the U.S. and no more than 400 that can threaten Beijing’s neighbors. Those that target the U.S. are on highly inaccurate intercontinental-range missiles, missiles that are so large and slow they make ideal ground targets and easy pickings for planned U.S. national missile defenses. A large portion of the remaining warheads can only be delivered by bombers, all of which are sitting targets on the ground and in the air. Because these forces have not grown much in the past decade, some have insisted that China has no interest in amassing an offensive force, only a retaliatory one against Russia, the U.S. and, lately, India.

What the Cox report makes clear is that it would be a mistake to bank on this in the next century. China has acquired from Russia the means to make much more nuclear-weapons material with new gas centrifuge enrichment technology. Combined with its new, smaller, more efficient U.S.-inspired warhead designs, China will now need far less material for each material for each warhead it makes. More important, the smaller nuclear warheads it is working on are light enough to mount on hard-to-target mobile launchers, which Beijing is now testing, and accurate and fast enough, given U.S.-transferred missile know-how, to stress severely both U.S.-planned regional and national missile defense systems. The bottom line: By 2009 the Chinese threat against the U.S. may no longer consist of a few slow-flying, and hard-to-intercept warheads and China’s neighbors may face thousands.

This is not a threat that firing an attorney general or national security adviser will avert. Nor will tightening security at the national laboratories or monitoring U.S. exports of sensitive technology to China have any significant effect. As the Cox report has made clear, most of the technology China needs to deploy the forces noted above it has already acquired.

Our current situation, although far less dire than in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is not dissimilar to the Russian nuclear crisis symbolized by the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. If we had only prosecuted some scapegoats (albeit guilty ones) and tightened our technology controls, but had failed to address the consequences of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, America would have lost the Cold War. The U.S. faces a similar danger today. What’s needed for more than political bloodletting or security efforts to close barn doors (after most of the barns have burned down) is a recommitment to securing Asia.

This is more difficult than securing laboratories or exports, but it is doable, and it is the only thing that will save us from the worst of what China might otherwise do. After all, China is not likely to build its military up if the only result is a tightening of U.S. –Asian alliances and a hardening of allied opinion against Beijing.

Some, of course, have already focused on this point by promoting regional and national missile defenses as the answer. Certainly, this makes sense. The only problem is the U.S. will not have much to offer for at least another five to 10 years, too late by itself to keep our Asian alliances stable. There are, however, several modest measures Washington can and should be considering now. First, stop helping specific Chinese entities known to be developing weapons targeted against the U.S. or its Asian allies. This, to be sure, would mean cutting off some U.S. exports of licensed militarily sensitive goods. Such a measure is now being considered by the Senate leadership.

Second, the U.S. must live up to its defense obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act. Taiwan currently has defense needs that aren’t being met. The best example comes from the last time China bussed Taiwan with missile firing in 1996. The U.S. sent its aircraft carriers to get China to back down. But the Taiwan military had no direct or secure way to communicate with our fleet. Why? Because for 20 years the U.S. has avoided any meaningful military-to-military contact with Taiwan. If we are serious about deterring Chinese adventurism, this must end. Sens. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.) and Robert Torricelli(D., N.J.) have introduced a bill to address these and related issues. China, of course, wants the bill defeated because it sees Taiwan as a renegade state. Japan, now debating how much it needs to arm itself, is watching to see if the U.S. caves in to Chinese pressure.

Provocative Catalyst

Finally, the U.S. is in desperate need of a sounder approach to the most provocative catalyst for war in Asia, North Korea, China’s client state. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry is visiting Pyongyang this week with yet another package of goodies in exchange for yet more promises of North Korean restraint. This comes after North Korea fired a Chinese-designed satellite over Japan and after news leaked out that North Korea is violating its prior pledges not to develop nuclear-weapon facilities. The U.S. needs to insist that North Korea live up to its current agreements before dropping current trade and diplomatic restrictions or letting Pyongyang build any U.S.-designed reactors. Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R., N.Y.) has introduced legislation that addresses this point.

More, of course, needs to be done, but if these measures get their day in Congress, the rest will follow. Short of this, however, the real problem, Asia’s security, will continue to go unaddressed.

Mr. Sokolski is director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washingotn.

Any questions? Please email: