Keep The Cox Report In Perspective

Doing business in China may be about to get a lot more difficult. U.S.-Chinese relations are in a downward spiral, and leaders in both countries are unwilling or unable to stop it. The Cox Committee report, revealing 20 years of Chinese spying on American nuclear weapons secrets, comes just two weeks after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Together, they have both nations edging back toward cold war rhetoric. The danger now is that a politicization of the Cox Report could really bring the cold war back, causing moderate forces in both countries to lose control.

Tough, sensible policies are needed to safeguard the nation's military secrets and counter China's potential new nuclear capabilities. But integrating China into the global economy remains the best hope of bolstering economic reform and keeping that nation's geostrategic intentions peaceful. The Cox Committee's expose of the incredibly lax security at America's top weapons labs is a tale of breathtaking incompetence. Three administrations, under Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, failed to keep America's secrets and one, Clinton's, failed to act properly when notified. What must be done now to secure those facilities may be obvious. But it is important to note that the committee concluded that most of China's knowledge of U.S. military weapons was attained openly from public sources, without spying.

A formal review of the Cox Committee data by an independent intelligence community group concluded that the worst-case scenarios of the report were overblown. Other credible sources argue that much information was actively shared. As Jonathan D. Pollack, a RAND Corp. specialist on China's military, points out that "for 20 years, beginning with Nixon, the U.S. actively facilitated the modernization of China's military because we felt it was in the national interest." Indeed, it was President Reagan who gave the go-ahead to launch U.S. satellites atop Chinese rockets.

This is not to say that Washington should do nothing. Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz once said, in effect, that you must prepare for the enemy's capabilities rather than his intentions. China's nuclear capabilities are now enhanced considerably. China presents two faces to the world--that of the peaceful, global, economic reformer, such as Zhu Rongji or Jiang Zemin, and that of the nationalistic militarist, such as Li Peng or the generals who run the People's Liberation Army. No one knows which group will eventually dominate and define China. Caution requires taking a serious second look at both satellite-launch and dual-use export policies.

Whether Washingon permitted it or not, Loral Space & Communications Ltd. and Hughes Electronics Corp. were probably unwise to have improved China's long-range rockets so as to more reliably loft the companies' satellites. The Cox Report accuses both of deliberately violating U.S. export control laws. Loral and Hughes say they submitted reports constantly to the Commerce Dept. But that doesn't totally excuse their behavior. Under heavy lobbying pressure from the same satellite manufacturers, the Clinton Administration shifted oversight of the China launch program from the State Dept. to Commerce. This was probably a mistake and has now been reversed. As for export controls, tightening up on a small number of potentially harmful products makes more sense than tying up thousands in red tape.

The Presidential election is only 18 months away, and the temptation to play politics with the Cox report is overwhelming. Already, there are calls to punish China by blocking its entry into the World Trade Organization. President Clinton made a serious blunder when he rejected the great deal Chinese Premier Zhu offered a month ago. He should not compound it by failing to show leadership again on the issue. A window of opportunity remains to get China in before the election campaigns heat up. Clinton should take it.

Cautious engagement, not angry isolation of China, is still the best chance for promoting global growth and peace in the next century.

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