by Joseph Cirincione
Non-Proliferation Project, Carnegie Endowment

Presentation to the CATO Institute, June 7, 1999

Everyone who wants to talk about Chinese nuclear forces will have to start for at least the next year with a discussion of the Cox Report. In brief, the Cox Committee report, like the Rumsfeld Commission before it, has taken a real problem and hyper-inflated it for political purposes.

I had the privilege of serving on the professional national security staff of the House of Representatives for over nine years. I know congressional reports. I have written congressional reports. This is no congressional report. It is a propaganda piece. With it’s unprecedented, expensive, glossy publication style it is much more like the "Soviet Military Power" series produced by the Reagan Administration than it is like any other committee report.

It compares unfavorably, for example, with the sober, serious, balanced report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on the same subject, released a few weeks before the Cox report. This is what a congressional report should be. The Shelby report is hard-hitting and critical of the Administration.  But it is not hysterical and not, as Cox Committee member Congressman Norm Dicks admitted about his report, a "worst case assessment."

Turning to the substance, House Majority Leader Dick Armey summarizes the report for us when he says, "It’s very scary, and basically what it says is the Chinese now have the capability of threatening us with our own nuclear technology."

He gets that information directly from the Report’s overview, which states:

  • "These thefts of nuclear secrets from our national weapons laboratories enabled the PRC to design, develop and successfully test modern strategic nuclear weapons sooner than would otherwise have been possible."
  • "The stolen US nuclear secrets give the PRC design information on thermonuclear weapons on a par with our own….the stolen information includes classified information on seven US thermonuclear warheads."
  • Then, later on p. 60 of Volume I of the report, "The stolen US secrets have helped the PRC fabricate and successfully test modern strategic thermonuclear weapons."

These are dramatic statements. The are also not true, at least according to the combined judgement of all of our national intelligence agencies and an independent review panel led by Adm. David Jeremiah and including Brent Scowcroft. It is understandable that the Cox Committee made mistakes. After all, according to Committee Member John Spratt, they only turned to the matter of Chinese espionage on October 21, and concluded taking testimony on the issue on November 15 and filed their report Jan. 3.

The Committee had spent most of its time in 1998 investigating charges that critical technology was transferred to the PRC by major US corporations while using Chinese rockets to launch American satellites. Many in the Republican leadership had hoped this investigation would lead to impeachment charges against the President. A number of Republican leaders went to the floor of the House and Senate and accused the President of treason for allegedly facilitating this transfer of information. These charges could not be substantiated. The Cox Committee then hurriedly took testimony from only three witnesses on the nuclear weapons security issue: DOE intelligence official Notra Trulock, a CIA analyst, and a Los Alamos employee. The Cox report basically presents the Notra Trulock view of China, unchallenged and unbalanced.


China’s Changing Nuclear Posture

Let’s take a step back and review what China’s nuclear capabilities are.

Deep in China’s Henan province, a hundred miles from the ancient city of Xi’an, China has deployed in silos and in caves about 20 Dong Feng-5 missiles. They are deployed with their liquid fuel tanks empty and with their 4- and 5-Megaton nuclear warheads detached and stored separately. Though each has enough explosive power to vaporize an average city, the force pales in comparison to the 5,500 warheads the United States deploys on its modern, highly accurate missiles, or even the 144 warheads the United Kingdom carries on its Trident sea-launched ballistic missiles.

Of the five recognized nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China), China has the oldest, least capable, and most stable nuclear deterrent force. China deployed the first Dong Feng-5 (or "East Wind") in 1981. Slowly, over the years, the numbers have grown to the current 20 missiles deployed. For two decades, this atomic arsenal, along with dozens of intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles and air-dropped bombs, has served China’s strategic interests.

China has plans to modernize the missile force, and actually has been trying to implement those plans for well over a decade. They are worried about the survivability of their force, and, thus, China’s military and political leaders want new, modern, solid-fueled missiles like their nuclear peers. The force may increase in number and will likely be more accurate. Like the other powers, China may opt for multiple warheads atop each missile. Like the other powers, China uses a variety of methods to acquire the information it needs to develop its weaponry, including espionage.

Earlier this year, the Cox committee report—then classified—recommended that the Executive branch conduct a comprehensive damage assessment on the implications of China’s acquisition of US nuclear weapons information. The Administration did so, forming a team of officials from the CIA, DIA, DOD, NSA, INR, FBI and other agencies and the nuclear laboratories. An independent panel of nuclear experts, Chaired by Admiral David Jeremiah and including General Brent Scowcroft, Dr. John Foster and others then reviewed their damage assessment. In April, they issued their report. This net assessment has been lost in the political firestorm generated by recent congressional hearings and reports. It deserves to be read carefully. They reached two critical conclusions.

The Damage Assessment team concluded:

"China's technical advances have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage, contact with US and other countries' scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified US weapons information, and Chinese indigenous development. The relative contribution of each cannot be determined."

This means that we do not know, and may never know, whether the Chinese got most of their information from spying or from the Internet.

The tip-off that China had at least some classified information on US weapons designs came from an unusual 1995 incident. In an apparent attempt to establish a double-agent, a Chinese national walked into a US office in Asia with an armful of top-secret Chinese documents. One of these was a paper dated 1988 listing the characteristics of a number of deployed US nuclear weapons. While much of this information, such as yield, weight, and accuracy was readily available, one tidbit was not—the radius of the primary stage of the W-88 warhead. This sent alarm bells ringing, and it is the basis for the charge that China has design information on all our current nuclear warheads. But the suspect nature of this double agent and the documents he produced make it difficult to evaluate the seriousness of the situation.

The discovery this March that critical nuclear design data was illegally moved from a classified to an unclassified computer at Los Alamos National Laboratory is much more serious. Even here, it is still not known if any of the information actually reached China.

We do know, however, that whatever information China accessed has had little impact on their nuclear weapons. The Damage Assessment panel concluded:

"Significant deficiencies remain in the Chinese weapons program…. To date, the aggressive Chinese collection effort has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment."

"China has had the technical capability to develop a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) system for its large, currently deployed ICBM for many years, but has not done so. "

This assessment directly contradicts the central message of the Cox report. China will modernize its nuclear forces and its conventional military forces. But it is so far behind the United States and our allies that America’s military leaders conclude unanimously, as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command Admiral Dennis Blair testified this year, "China would not represent a serious military threat to the U.S. for at least 20 years."

Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency General Patrick Hughes concludes bluntly in his annual threat assessment, "There is no indication that China will field the much larger number of missiles necessary to shift from a minimalist, retaliation strategy to a first-strike strategy." This did not square with the views of the majority members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who pushed him on the issue in a series of questions for the record. General Hughes response (just released by the Committee) is that he has "high confidence" in this assessment and further, that "China’s defense expenditures are not expected to increase significantly for nuclear defense modernization."

This DIA assessment is consistent with the policy of a minimum deterrence force that China has pursued since it first began its nuclear weapons program. China has never had any intention of making the same mistake the Soviet Union and the United States made during the Cold War: engaging in an expensive race that produce over 125,000 nuclear weapons (at the cost on the U.S. side alone of over $5 trillion). China has sought a minimum force, adequate to deter a nuclear adversary from attacking first, knowing that there would be a nuclear launch in response.

The overall situation encapsulated by James Mulvenon, a RAND Corporation military analyst, who says:

"The US is no more at threat now than before this alleged espionage. It is only half the battle to steal technology. China has not fielded any weapon—and does not appear to be planning to—that has any technology said to be stolen."

Mr. Mulvenon testified before the Cox panel, but apparently he was not asked for his assessment of the espionage impact and his views or the views of the majority of intelligence and military experts on this issue are not reflected in the panel report.

Obviously, China’s plans could accelerate. If the United States and Japan increase their military presence on China’s borders by deploying missile defenses, if the US enters into a de facto military alliance with Taiwan over missile defenses, or if India were to deploy nuclear-armed missiles in significant numbers, China’s military could well demand and get a greater share of China’s scarce resources.

The overall Chinese strategic vision remains the same: China wants 20 to 30 years of international peace and stability in order to modernize its economy and raise the standard of living for its population. Only then would true military modernization be possible. During this economic modernization process much could change in China, including the very nature of the regime. In fact, some would say that democratization is essential for China’s sustained economic growth.

Much depends on how America handles this critical relationship. Campaign agendas or political hyperbole should not overrule the sound judgements of our military leadership nor stampede us into reckless confrontations or expensive new military programs.

Joseph Cirincione is the Director of the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project. He served for nine years on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee and Government Operations Committee.

Link to The Cox Committee Report