Chinese Nuclear Espionage: Is the Hysteria Warranted?

By Ivan Eland
June 3, 1999
The Cox Committee finally released its long-awaited report detailing U.S. losses of technology through Chinese espionage and launching of U.S. satellites. The report, and much of the ensuing frenzy in the press, focused on what technology was lost, how the Chinese obtained it and whether the Clinton administration was negligent about stanching the flow of secrets. Almost no attention has been given to the most important issue—the specific ill-effects on U.S. security of such technology transfers. Those effects are very likely overblown.

Conservative Republicans—looking for a new enemy to fight after the Cold War —have fed the media hype by making the questionable assertion that this is the worst case of espionage in U.S. history. The conservatives seem to have forgotten that in the late 1940s Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall gave the Soviets the atomic bomb. Any technology the Chinese have obtained merely improves that country’s arsenal of long-range nuclear missiles that can already hit U.S. cities.

The Cox Committee asserts boldly that “the stolen U.S. secrets have helped the PRC fabricate and successfully test modern strategic thermonuclear weapons,” but little evidence is provided. To date, the Chinese have fielded no weapons that contain U.S. technologies. The committee also “judges that the PRC’s next generation of thermonuclear weapons, currently under development, will exploit elements of the stolen U.S. design information.” That statement may be proven true, but the key issue is the extent of that exploitation. The Central Intelligence Agency was unable to determine what proportion of the information the Chinese obtained was stolen (versus what was gathered from open sources) and what effect the information had on Chinese advances in warhead design. Buried in the Cox Committee report is an admission that the CIA’s conclusion is correct: “Assessing the extent to which design information losses accelerated the PRC’s nuclear weapons development is complicated because so much is unknown. The full extent of U.S. information that the PRC acquired and the sophistication of the PRC’s indigenous design capabilities are unclear.” Howard T. Hawkins, second in command at the Los Alamos nonproliferation and international security office and a student of the Chinese nuclear force, sees no sign of substantial improvements in the Chinese arsenal that are based on U.S. nuclear data.

Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington, the committee’s ranking minority member—echoing the opinion of many experts—astutely observed that the Chinese record of success in incorporating foreign technology into weapons has not been good. The Cox report provides an illustration: China required over 30 years to field its present liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile—even after emigrating members of the U.S. design team for the Titan missile program in the 1950s illegally gave the Chinese U.S. technology on which the missile was based.

Another committee member, John Spratt (D-S.C.), also distanced himself from one of the major conclusions of the report: “The stolen U.S. nuclear secrets give the PRC design information on thermonuclear weapons on a par with our own.” Spratt objected to that statement and noted that the United States has had much more experience than China has had building nuclear weapons (30,000 versus a few hundred) and testing them (about 1,100 tests versus 50).

At the news conference held to release the report, Dicks and Spratt admitted that the committee’s conclusions were written using a “worst case” scenario. They defended that approach as a way to sound the alarm and then quickly tried to “put the report in perspective.” Unfortunately, truth is better than scare tactics, and written words have longer lives than oral caveats after the fact.

Even if China did steal all of the secrets the committee cited and is eventually able to successfully incorporate the technology, the Chinese military would need to dramatically expand its small nuclear arsenal and abandon its defensive nuclear doctrine of minimum deterrence to pose a substantially increased threat to the United States. (Stretched thin by the need to support a bloated, sagging and antiquated military, China’s modest funding for defense—$35 billion per year compared with the U.S. defense budget of $290 billion—may not be able to support a nuclear breakout.) During and after the Cold War, the Chinese eschewed the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race and chose instead to build a small retaliatory nuclear force (now about two dozen warheads) that could hit an opponent’s cities. In contrast, the United States and Russia still have offensive nuclear forces (more than 6,000 strategic warheads each) primarily designed to destroy the other nation’s missiles in their hardened silos. According to Hawkins, given China’s current nuclear doctrine, even the crown jewel of the U.S. arsenal—the silo-busting W-88 warhead—will provide China with minimal gains.

Strangely, the Cox report, in a conclusion that was not highlighted, says it best: “Although the United States has been the victim of systematic espionage successfully targeted against our most advanced nuclear weapons designs—and although the Select Committee judges that the PRC will exploit elements of those designs for its new generation ICBMs—the United States retains overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage in deployed strategic nuclear forces.” Despite the current hysteria about Chinese espionage, that vast U.S. nuclear superiority is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.