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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Alarm Misguided

The possibility that former Soviet warheads could spread to outlaw states is a far more pressing danger than Chinese missile threats.

Sensational charges that U.S. lobbyists and Chinese campaign contributions lulled the Clinton administration into unwittingly giving China access to critical missile technology obscure real security challenges facing the United States. While Washington bickers over which political party was least irresponsible in approving satellite launches on Chinese rockets, U.S. leaders should focus on far more serious threats arising from the seamless link between commerce and warfare in the post-Cold War era.

It is folly to think that, beyond controlling exports of only the most unambiguous weaponry, the Clinton administration or its predecessors could separate political, commercial and national-security concerns involved in satellite launches or any other business transaction.

Administration critics contend that candidate Bill Clinton campaigned against Reagan-Bush policies permitting Chinese launches of U.S. satellites even as China sold missiles to countries in the Middle East. Yet, as president, Clinton put the Commerce Department in charge of foreign satellite sales, scrapped technology-export controls and ignored continuing evidence of Chinese missile sales. When Washington's attention waned, U.S. satellite makers, exploiting China's low-cost launchers, grew more careless.

In 1996, experts from Hughes Electronics Corp. and Loral Space & Communications Ltd., two companies heavily involved with Chinese aerospace, analyzed for insurers the crash of a Chinese missile launching a $200-million U.S. communications satellite. Loral reportedly faxed portions of the report to Chinese officials before obtaining U.S. clearance. Last February, Clinton allowed Loral to sell China another satellite despite State Department objections that a Justice Department investigation of whether the two U.S. companies divulged militarily sensitive technology to the Chinese in their analysis of the 1996 crash could be compromised. Loral and, reportedly, Chinese government officials were large Democratic Party contributors.

Apart from their possible influence-buying implications, these facts have ignited a debate over whether sensitive military information can be gleaned from complex deals like launch sales. To believe otherwise, however, is sheer fantasy. It's inevitable that transactions like the marriage of U.S. payloads with Chinese Long March missiles affect the balance of power. The Clinton administration is hardly unique in justifying controversial Chinese satellite sales with unconvincing claims that military concerns were divorced from commerce.

The Reagan administration first proposed launching U.S. satellites on Chinese missiles after the 1986 shuttle disaster.

U.S. satellite companies strongly supported the idea. U.S.-Chinese collaboration, furthermore, was consistent with the Republican policy of "engagement," which aimed to transform China through multiplying its economic ties with the West.

But U.S. missile makers opposed the use of cheaper Chinese rockets to hoist American payloads. Security analysts feared such deals would help China upgrade its nuclear arsenal. Chinese missile sales to countries like Pakistan, Iran and Syria raised proliferation concerns.

In late 1988, AsiaSat, a company seeking to buy a refurbished U.S. communication satellite, played a key role as Washington weighed the new policy. A major AsiaSat investor was CITIC, a Chinese investment company.

AsiaSat deployed an army of lobbyists to stifle concerns about China's unfair launch-price competition. Under pressure, the State Department concluded that transferring technology about missile structural integrity, dynamics, acoustics and electromagnetic interference to the Chinese would not affect national security.

Evidence quickly mounted, however, that China was still selling missile technology to Middle Eastern countries. In June 1989, Chinese hard-liners massacred pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. To sanction China, all satellite sales were suspended.

Critics on the left and right reject a policy of engagement for precisely these reasons. Nations like China, they argue, should meet U.S. social, political and security standards before we enrich them.

But unless U.S. decisions about which countries deserve commercial relations are honored by all nations, something few think possible, unilateral action would hurt U.S. companies for little gain. Isolation also cuts off the beneficial contacts commerce does provide even in difficult cases like China. New power blocks might be fostered that could quickly become powerful adversaries.

The debate over whether we are facilitating Chinese technical know-how through commercial relations makes painfully clear how easily the United States can be distracted from far more complex threats. Even if every fear about improved Chinese missile accuracy is true, for example, the U.S.-Chinese balance of power only would change marginally, at worst. The United States enjoys overwhelming nuclear and conventional-force superiority.

In contrast, the possibility that former Soviet warheads and missile technology could spread to outlaw states is an incomparably more pressing danger. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the United States encouraged U.S. missile manufacturers to link with Soviet defense companies so the region's rocket experts would not be tempted by offers from rogue nations.

"Loose nuke'' containment critically depends on Russia's economic and social stability and keeping its skilled missile makers happily at work. Yet, the same global capital flows that devastated Asia are pushing Russia toward economic collapse. Russian leaders, furthermore, refuse to confirm how many nuclear arms exist, where they are and how safely they're being protected. This ominous situation receives virtually no attention, while Chinese missile threats are wildly overstated.

David Friedman is an international consultant and fellow in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Japan Program. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.