What China Didn't Need to Steal

The New York Times
May 5, 1999

Publication Type: 

  • Articles and Reports

Related Country: 

  • China


Gary Milhollin and Jordan Richie

Americans are right to be outraged that a suspected Chinese spy may have stolen the computer codes for the entire United States nuclear arsenal. But the loss of this data is only half the story. The other half is about hardware.

Even after stealing the plan for an advanced warhead, one would need high-performance equipment to manufacture and test its precision parts. Sadly, China is getting those machines from the United States-and it doesn't even have to steal them.

A study we recently completed shows that the Commerce Department approved more than $15 billion worth of strategically sensitive exports to China in the last decade. Although supposedly intended for civilian purposes, the department's records show that much of this "dual-use" equipment went directly to nuclear, missile and military sites, the vertebrae of China's strategic backbone.

And unbeknownst to the American suppliers, several of these Chinese companies later sold nuclear and other military equipment to Iran and Pakistan, according to American intelligence reports and news accounts.

More than half of the $15 billion in exports consisted of computers. China had been denied access to high-performance computers until President Clinton loosened computer controls in 1996, after strenuous lobbying by his political supporters in Silicon Valley. Then a flood of computer exports began.

By now China has imported about 400 high-performance machines, just what would be needed to process the American nuclear codes and simulate the workings of our arsenal. Although China has insisted that these computers were imported for civilian uses, it has refused virtually all requests to let United States officials see what the machines are really doing.

In all, the military and strategic value of what China got from the Commerce Department was at least as great as what it may have gotten from spies. Consider the following:

The state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation was allowed to buy equipment useful for uranium prospecting made by International Imaging Systems, a California company. China National Nuclear then helped Iran prospect for uranium that American intelligence officials believe will be used in making nuclear weapons.

The state-owned China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation, which manufactures China's newest anti-ship cruise missiles, was allowed to buy a computer system that is useful for simulating wind effects. Not only did these missiles strengthen the Chinese military, but the company has also exported some to Iran, where, according to the United States naval commander in the Persian Gulf, they threaten our personnel.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences was allowed to buy equipment from the Convex Computer Corporation (which has since been bought by Hewlett-Packard) for processing data from an experimental fusion reactor. The academy then exported the reactor to Iran, where it is used for training nuclear scientists.

American equipment was approved for export to the National University of Defense Technology, which helps the People's Liberation Army design advanced weapons; the University of Electronic Science and Technology, which helps develop stealth aircraft and advanced military radar, and the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which helps develop missiles and specializes in guidance, navigation and flight dynamics. (The licensing records do not reveal whether all the items approved were actually shipped, but there is no reason to think they weren't.)

In the decade we studied, American companies were also licensed to sell China a great deal of noncomputer equipment that could be used for weaponry.

This included $241 million worth of machinery for making special semiconductors that can go into missiles, torpedoes, smart munitions, fuses and secure communications equipment; $131 million worth of highspeed oscilloscopes, which can record data from nuclear weapon tests, help design nuclear weapon firing circuits and develop missile guidance systems; $111 million worth of high-accuracy machine tools that can produce the precision parts needed for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and $5.4 million worth of vibration-testing equipment, which can enable nuclear weapons and missiles to withstand shock, impact and rapid acceleration.

Although China is not an enemy of the United States, it is not an ally. We disagree on fundamental issues like human rights, trade and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. "Engagement," the current policy toward China, is an abstraction connoting cultural visits and the opening of business ties. But in reality, this policy includes a trade in the means to make advanced weaponry.

Are high-tech exports so vital that we are willing to help China build a potent nuclear arsenal and the modern missile force to deliver it?