- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2001

Way back in the days of the Evil Empire, when the Soviet Union was still a major threat to the United States and our allies, it was thought wise to play the Peoples Republic of China (P.R.C.) against Moscow. That was Richard Nixons idea and it worked well right through President Ronald Reagans tenure. In fact, by the mid-1980s the effort to "build bridges" with Beijing was deemed so successful that nascent military-to-military and scientific exchanges were expanded and joint intelligence operations were conducted against Moscow and the Warsaw Pact.

In the spring of 1985, the U.S.-P.R.C. relationship was cozy enough that I was dispatched to meet with a senior officer of the People´s Liberation Army (PLA) to determine if it would covertly provide Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles to defend against Soviet Hind attack helicopters that were being used in Afghanistan and Nicaragua. They agreed to do so, and did. Beijing´s willingness to help U.S.-supported "freedom fighters" kill Soviet pilots was taken as proof by the most senior officials in our government that the "U.S.-P.R.C. Relationship" had reached a new plateau.

And then came the Tiananmen Square massacre, in June 1989, followed in September 1991 by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In just 26 months, the entire U.S.-P.R.C. dynamic changed. The PLA´s brutal suppression of the fledgling "democracy movement" and intelligence reports about China´s military build-up cast doubt on the intentions of the regime in Beijing. Yet, public outrage over human-rights abuses and verified intelligence reports about the growing threat of the Asian giant had little to no effect on the U.S.-P.R.C. exchange programs established during the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite warnings from the CIA, military and counterintelligence officers of the FBI and Department of Energy, exchange programs with the P.R.C. were expanded along with trade and technology transfers throughout the Clinton administration. According to the intelligence officers and FBI agents I spoke with, the military and scientific exchanges were increased for two reasons. First, there was hope we could recruit some of their military officers and scientists to spy for us. Second, at the very least, we would use these "official and unofficial contacts" to "expose them to our democratic institutions" and to reassure Beijing of our peaceful intentions. They now describe this as the "Rodney King" policy: "Can´t we all just get along?"

By now, in the aftermath of the Wen Ho Lee case, the Cox Report, revelations about P.R.C. assistance to Saddam Hussein and the infamous EP-3 incident, one might assume we would know better. But clearly, we don´t. Official Washington remains muddled between those who see communist China as a growing threat to our security and others who believe despots will become democrats if we simply buy enough from them.

If you´re perplexed about what our policy toward China is, think about how all this is playing in Beijing. On April 25, President Bush warned he would "use whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself." And the State Department, in a break with past practice, is encouraging members of Congress to meet with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian when he visits the U.S. later this month. But last week, Bill Clinton went to Hong Kong and vowed that the U.S. must continue to push for China´s entrance into the World Trade Organization, and mused that if the U.S. and China can just become "partners" then "the world will be a much better place in the next 50 years." He could have added, "when pigs fly."

Confused? So is the Pentagon. On April 30, it was announced that all U.S.-P.R.C. military-to-military exchanges would be "terminated." But two days later, this position was "modified" to the effect that such exchanges would be "reviewed."

Then, on May 3, the Department of Energy (DOE) belatedly admitted to Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, that a total of 894 "visits and assignments by 'Citizens´ of the P.R.C. had been approved for access" to DOE sites as of April 3, 2001. Some 107 of these "visits and assignments" were to locations where U.S. nuclear weapons are designed and built including our super-secret Nuclear Weapons Production Facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Befuddled? Here´s another one. On May 1, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz announced that U.S. Army soldiers would not be required to wear black berets made by slave labor in communist China. Everyone applauded. But this week, Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, told me he was "outraged to discover that the Pentagon was still planning to spend $4.1 million U.S. tax dollars for 'tennis shoes´ and hundreds of thousands more for food from communist China that would be included in U.S. military combat rations." He is now trying to determine the extent of our reliance on the P.R.C. for military goods. The answer thus far from the Defense Logistics Agency: "There is no database from which to gather this information."

You don´t need a database to recognize confusion. A sentry standing guard is trained to shout, "Halt. Who goes there?" to determine if someone approaching the sentinel is friend or foe. Communist China´s major military exercises in the South China Sea this week seem to indicate they have made their determination. Shouldn´t we do the same?

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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