Thursday, September 4, 2008

China's Nuclear Weapon Development

Recent disclosure indicates that in the late 1980's and early 1990's, scientists from China attending scientific conferences in America came not to steal America's nuclear secrets but to let America in on China's secrets.

The latest expose about China's nuclear weapon development makes for fascinating reading and turns popular notion on its head. Written by Thomas Reed, an expert on nuclear weapons and former Secretary of Air Force, entitled The Chinese nuclear tests, 1964–1996, the article appeared in September 2008 issue of Physics Today.

Reed's article pointed out that China exploded its first atomic bomb on October 16, 1964, and quickly moved to detonate its first hydrogen bomb 32 months later--a rate of progress faster than any other member of the nuclear club and at a time when there were hardly any contact with the West. Subsequently, China decided that America should know about their nuclear capability.

Contrary to Reed's assumption that Chinese scientists craving international recognition was the main motivation for their subsequent disclosure, I believe China decided that Washington needed to be made aware of the level of sophisticated deterrence China was capable of and thus alleviate any miscalculation by the Pentagon.

Reed's article was based on information provided by Danny Stillman, a nuclear weapon scientist based in Los Alamos and charged with the responsibility to gather intelligence about China's nuclear weapon technology.

Stillman eagerly sought meetings with the visiting Chinese. He knew very well that dialogue with scientific peers was frequently the most effective way of learning about what the other side was doing. He struck friendships with the Chinese visitors and was invited to visit China.

Stillman's numerous forays into China opened his eyes. He was impressed with the advanced state of the art technology he witnessed. He compiled what he saw into a book he was hoping to publish, but his timing was bad.

His book was suppressed by the U.S. government on the convoluted grounds that the Chinese should not know what they have already told Stillman about China's nuclear weapon development. This was during the height of China bashing hysteria as exemplified by the Cox Committee Congressional Report in which every piece of worthwhile military secret was thought to have been stolen by the Chinese.

Dr. Wen Ho Lee was a direct victim of this hysteria. A Los Alamos scientist, Lee was initially accused of somehow giving away multi-headed missile technology to China, later the charges downgraded to illegally downloading from his work computer. The presiding judge dismissed the case with a most unusual apology to Lee for government misconduct. A review of the hysteria that occurred in 1999-2000 can be found here.

Naturally, Stillman could not be allowed to publish his book revealing that China has been developing its nuclear weaponry quite successfully and independent of the need to steal American technology. His book would have spoiled all the fun of China bashing.

Reed concluded his article with, "Over a period of 15 years, an intellectually talented China achieved parity with the West and preeminence over its Asian peers in the design of nuclear weapons and in understanding underground nuclear testing. China now stands in the first rank of nuclear powers."

Pentagon frequently accuse China's military with lack of transparency. But have we been attentive when China is being candid and transparent?

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