Lessons From the Cox Report

The House select committee on Chinese spying, led by Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California and Norm Dicks (D) of Washington, showed that Republicans and Democrats can still work together on serious matters of national security. The panel's inquiry was a welcome contrast to the partisan bickering - for which both sides are responsible - that has marred other congressional investigations over the last few years.

The unclassified version of the committee report details China's extensive espionage in United States nuclear-weapons laboratories and elsewhere. The fact that administrations of both parties, and Congresses controlled by both, took insufficient action to stop the security breaches may have boosted the bipartisanship.

Republicans can point out that the Clinton administration learned of espionage at the labs in 1995, yet did little about it until last year. Democrats can respond that the GOP-controlled House and Senate intelligence committees were briefed on the problem in 1996 but took no action. Still, senior administration officials have some explaining to do.

President Clinton endorses many of the committee's 38 recommendations. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, whose department administers the labs, has implemented a new security regime to deter further espionage. So far, so good, but Congress must ensure follow-through.

Behind all this lies a larger question: What is to be the US relationship with China? How does China threaten US interests? Is China a "strategic partner," as the administration would have it, or an adversary, or something in between?

Some in Washington seek a new Soviet Union to replace the old one in strategic and military calculations. But China isn't the Soviet Union. It has but two-dozen nuclear missiles. Beijing may upgrade them into multiple-warhead mobile missiles over the next few years, perhaps using stolen US technology. But it won't pose anywhere near the threat to US security the Soviet Union did in its heyday. China's defense budget right now is about $35 billion a year compared with about $267 billion for the US.

The US and China are far more entangled than the US and the Soviet Union ever were. US trade with China, and the number of Chinese traveling to the US, far exceeds exchanges with the old Soviet state.

In dealing with Beijing, Washington must always put its national security interests first. In some cases, it will need to take a firm stand with China. Where possible, the two nations can and should cooperate.

Good relations, especially job-creating trade, are in both countries' interests. The Middle Kingdom is evolving, while not as fast as many would like, in some positive directions. By all means, protect US secrets. But while China may not be a partner, there's no need to make it an enemy.

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