As China renews talks with the US on weapons proliferation, it is deploying an unusual strategy to counter accusations it stole American nuclear secrets.
Still stinging from charges that Chinese spies acquired the designs for seven of Washington's most advanced nuclear warheads, the Beijing-based China Nuclear Information Center has released a cyber-directory to show how much information on thermonuclear weapons is freely available on the Internet.
"Foreign Nuclear Web Sites," which costs 30-yuan (about $3.75), is a treasure trove for would-be explorers of nuclear information stored in computers throughout the US and the world.
Within its 77 pages are Web addresses for the US Department of Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Sciences and all major American nuclear weapons labs, including one entry titled "Group T-2 (Nuclear Theory and Applications) of the Theoretical Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory."
China's use of the "Internet defense" is rich in irony. Since the 1949 Communist revolution, Beijing has jailed thousands of Chinese on charges of leaking state secrets to foreigners by revealing information that was in fact printed in local newspapers. And the party is now trying to impose draconian controls on Internet users throughout China.
During discussions between the US and China, which resume July 7-8, a range of proliferation issues is expected to be covered by John Holum, the State Department's top arms control expert, and his Chinese counterparts.
Beijing suspended weapons talks after US jetfighters bombed Beijing's Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, killing three Chinese and wounding two dozen others.
The Beijing talks will cover China's effort to buy advanced radar systems from Israel and the US proposal to build a national missile shield to guard against a nuclear attack.
The discussions also will likely address "suspicions that China transferred nuclear weapons technology to North Korea and nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan," says Charles Ferguson, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
China's harshest critics in Congress have charged that the world's last communist titan used myriad types of espionage to pilfer American weapons material, and that it might have sold that data to enemies of the US.
Congress is set to vote soon on a bill that would outline a series of sanctions against China if the proliferation charges are proven. That vote comes one year after a US Congressional panel headed by Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) released a two-volume report that accused China of stealing a wide array of top-secret blueprints for thermonuclear bombs.
Li Tao, a technology division chief at China Nuclear, says that one reason the nuclear Web site directory was published was to refute the Cox Report.
Much of the information China was alleged to have stolen "is not secret - it's all published on the Internet," says Mr Li.
His comments echo an earlier statement issued by China's State Council, which stated that "the structure, size, weight, shape, power, and circular error probability ... of seven US nuclear warheads, including the W-88, listed in the Cox Report, in fact, can be found in many open documents and on the Internet."
Some open secrets
Stan Norris, co-author of "The Internet and the Bomb," says that "probably some of the information [China was charged with stealing] in the Cox Report is available on the Internet."
"If you have fissile material ... smart people and enough resources, you can build a bomb based on information available on the Internet," adds Mr. Norris, a senior analyst at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
China Nuclear's cyber-manual lists weapons research labs by four out of the world's five nuclear powers (interestingly, there is no weapons information about China - the fifth power), along with a Russian site called "A Primer on Fissile Materials and Nuclear Weapons Design."
"This is just incredible," says a Western diplomat. "We've seen people make nuclear devices based on publicly available information ... and the Chinese have certainly done a lot of research in this area," he adds. "But it's still astounding that they would sell this kind of directory on the open market."
China Nuclear's Li says he has no qualms about issuing the directory. "We're not worried about terrorists using this book. You could find even more information by doing a search for nuclear weapons on Yahoo." Li adds: "The nuclear directory we published is not exposing any secrets - countries don't put their military and state secrets on the Internet."
A Beijing-based diplomat says that while he's surprised by the publication of China Nuclear's weapons directory, he concedes that "the US would not put its most advanced weapons designs on open Web sites." He adds that the US "maintains a firewall between public Web sites and internal government computers, and continuously upgrades its defenses against the theft of secrets by hackers."
But the diplomat adds that the Internet could still be a valuable tool for spies or merchants of advanced weapons designs. "Before the Internet, spies had to worry about not only how to steal information, but also how to transfer that information to the end-user," he says. "But now, the transfer of any kind of information is just a click away."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society