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The China Spy Case

The latest burst of concern about the loss of US military technology to China calls for a dual response: Tighten security, but don't push any panic buttons.

Security at the national laboratories at Los Alamos, N.M., and other locations has reportedly been lax for years. Foreign visitors sometimes have had the run of the places, and background checks were waived.

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That has changed. The Clinton administration is now making a point of stricter security procedures. To demonstrate toughness, the Department of Energy, which runs the labs, just fired a Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos who is suspected of passing to China secrets about how to build smaller nuclear warheads.

The case against the scientist, a Los Alamos staffer for two decades, is strong enough for dismissal, apparently, but not for legal action. The jury is not only still out on him, it hasn't even been impaneled.

But political judgments are flying - kicked up by this case and a flurry of related matters. For instance:

*A special bipartisan committee of Congress spent much of last year compiling evidence of Chinese efforts to acquire US missile technology. Its findings are still largely classified, though they are known to include information about security breaches at the national weapons laboratories.

*The Bureau of Export Administration in February issued a report saying that foreign companies doing business in China are sometimes coerced into sharing technology that could have military applications.

*This week a Chinese citizen and a Canadian of Chinese ancestry were indicted for trying to smuggle US missile technology to China.

All this has generated a lot of finger pointing in Washington - with Republicans blaming loose oversight at the White House, and the administration's defenders saying it really all got started back in the Bush years.

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What undoubtedly did get started then was an era of post-cold-war relations with an economically vital, but still politically problematic China. Early hopes of warmer ties were trounced by the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. There have been ups and downs since, and today's espionage worries could send relations into the deepest trough since 1989.

Here's where the panic buttons must be avoided. US interests demand continued engagement with Beijing, cementing already-strong economic ties while negotiating solutions to a range of problems - from dealing with militarily sensitive technology to lowering Chinese trade barriers to China's entry into the World Trade organization. Reform-minded Premier Zhu Rongji visits Washington next month - an opportunity to start sorting things out.

Most important, China and the US must understand each other's security needs and obligations, particularly regarding Taiwan. China's missile buildup opposite the island only feeds leeriness in Washington - deepening concerns about a possible Sino-US military face-off someday.

That day should never come. Both countries must seize the current moment to fix the damage to their relations - and potentially to the world.

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