After years of delay, China signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, stirring speculation about its motives. Some pundits said China yielded to international pressure for nuclear nonproliferation in the post-Cold War world. Oth ers said China took into account Japanese moves for partial suspension of aid to Beijing.

In my view, China is unlikely to abandon its nuclear test program, since its nuclear arms development is incomplete. I assumed that when it signed the CTBT, China saw clear prospects of a technical breakthrough that would make it possible to suspend nuclear tests.

The nature of the breakthrough was unclear, but at the time I thought that two New York Times reports were noteworthy. One report said that then U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, while visiting Beijing in 1994, had proposed to offer computer-simulated nuclear test technology in exchange for China’s signing of the CTBT. The other report said Perry warned Russia and Ukraine in 1996 against moves to transfer technologies for intercontinental ballistic missiles to China. The ICBMs, strategic arms owned by the former Soviet Union, had targeted the United States. The ICBMs were to have been dismantled under the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.

U.S. President Bill Clinton later said in a report to the U.S. Congress that the United States would not transfer computer-simulation nuclear technology to China, giving credence to the news report on the subject. I believe that Washington was willing to provide low-level military technology to China to help secure nuclear nonproliferation. Russia has sold some of the former Soviet Union’s sophisticated weapons to China, India, Islamic countries in the Middle East and South Korea to make money. It would hardly be surprising if it sold nuclear-arms technology to China.

I was stunned by recent media reports on China’s systematic and daring theft of U.S. nuclear-arms technology, which explains China’s signing of the CTBT. It had been reported for some time that China engaged in spying in the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, but the long-term, widespread and well-organized espionage that was recently exposed is amazing.

China’s nuclear-arms development program, launched in the mid-1950s, went into full swing in the 1960s. From the beginning, China sought to develop nuclear warheads and missiles capable of reaching the U.S., putting the modernization of conventional arms on the back burner. In the 1980s, it successfully test-fired an ICBM , completing the first generation of its nuclear arms. In the meantime, however, U.S. and Soviet nuclear-arms technology advanced by leaps and bounds.

I do not think that China seeks to develop a large nuclear arsenal on a par with that of the U.S. But to modernize its arsenal, China needs to improve its missile-guidance technology, develop smaller and lighter nuclear warheads and switch from liquid to solid rocket fuels. It also faces the technical challenges of developing mobile launch pads, nuclear-powered submarines, submarine-fired ballistic missiles, multiple warheads and spy satellites.

China is believed to have started developing a new generation of nuclear arms in the 1980s. This ties in with allegations that China has been spying on U.S. nuclear facilities since the late 1970s. In the 1980s, both the U.S. and China faced a military threat from the Soviet Union. Washington, developing relations with China as part of its anti-Soviet strategies, schemed to provide certain types of weapons and military technology to China. The latest defense scandal involves not only the theft of military technology but also the transfer or sale of certain types of military technology to China — sometimes through normal trading routes — as part of Washington’s anti-Soviet strategy. It looks as if the new generation of Chinese nuclear arms is based on U.S. technology, while the first generation was based on Soviet technology.

China’s nuclear capacity has steadily expanded since the 1980s, but it is unlikely to reach a level that could pose a threat to U.S. nuclear power. The problem with China is the widespread suspicion that it has been spreading nuclear arms or technology worldwide. If left unchecked, China could grow into a full nuclear power and could spread its technology to the Third World, especially Islamic countries. Aware of this problem, Washington has been promoting a military dialogue with China since the early 1980s to lure it into the international disarmament system.

That dialogue, suspended after the 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators, was resumed in 1993. The talks were again halted following the 1995 U.S. visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, and restarted in 1996. They were suspended following the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last month. The spy scandal plunged U.S.-China relations to a new low.

The U.S. has always been more enthusiastic about the military talks than has China. During the talks, Beijing has demanded the lifting of U.S. restrictions on the transfer of advanced technology and an end to U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan. China, which has less military might, has always taken the initiative in the talks. The U.S. will have to negotiate with China patiently to restart the talks.

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