The revelations in the Cox report are damning indeed, not because the Chinese spied on us but how successful they were.
Taking advantage of appalling security lapses at U.S. weapons labs and nuclear installations, China spent 40 years stealing or openly acquiring vital military secrets, including how to make seven of our most modern nuclear arms.The leakage of nuclear and missile technology began with an American defector during the Korean War and continued under successive Democratic and Republican administrations without, apparently, being detected until President Clinton's watch.
He and his team are taking the heat for not doing anything to stop it when they did learn of the spying.
Not only that, they relaxed export controls on dual-use technology -- already loosened by Republicans when the Cold War ended -- allowing China to procure the assistance of U.S. satellite companies in learning to avoid launch failures and improve the accuracy of their ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States.
Members of the bipartisan House committee, headed by Christopher Cox, R-Calif., concede their 700-page report is a "worst-case scenario," based partly on conjecture. The CIA, for example, is far more cautious about calling this the most egregious security breach in American history.
The agency's parallel investigation was unable to determine how much of the information the Chinese obtained was stolen -- as opposed to what was gathered from open sources such as arms shows, scientific conferences or the Internet and how damaging it really was. Of course, the CIA didn't even know where the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was, so its conclusions may be equally flawed.
But there are two ways to look at the Cox report.
The worst-case scenario, as outlined by Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, is that the Chinese got a jump on weapons technology that will enable them to build nuclear missiles as good as the United States while circumventing U.S. defensive measures.
"By 2009," says Sokolski, "the Chinese threat against the U.S. may no longer consist of a few slow-flying vulnerable missiles. Instead, we may have to face hundreds of accurate, fast-flying and hard-to-intercept warheads, and China's neighbors may face thousands."
The best-case scenario, in the words of Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, is that the Cox report is "overblown."
"Many military experts cite China's poor history in serially producing technology they've obtained," he said. " If China successfully incorporates the technology, to pose a substantially increased threat to the United States, it would also need to dramatically expand its small nuclear arsenal and abandon its nuclear doctrine of minimum deterrence.
"China's modest defense budget of $35 billion per year, compared with the gargantuan U.S. defense budget of $290 billion, may not be able to support such a 'nuclear breakout.' Despite Chinese espionage, the United States will most likely retain nuclear and conventional military dominance well into the next century."
Worst-case or best-case, the Chinese espionage scandal will become a political football as we approach our presidential election. And it will further chill relations between Washington and Beijing, already at their iciest because of the Chinese Embassy bombing in Belgrade.
As far as the Chinese are concerned, the embassy bombing was not a mistake and the spying charges are a political plot to deny China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Nine congressional committees now are looking into various aspects of Chinese spying or U.S. security lapses at the Energy Department's nuclear weapons labs. They are bound to come up with bills that further enrage Beijing.
The annual congressional debate on "normal trade relations" with China -- formerly called "most favored nation" status -- also will be more heated.
But favorable tariffs will be renewed, as they have always been, because the trade relationship is too profitable to kill.
We cannot turn our backs on the world's fastest-growing market without risking a major economic downturn.
Holger Jensen is international editor of the Denver Rocky Mountain News.