There should be little surprise in the idea that China, at the height of the Cold War arms buildup, would seek to steal secrets that allowed it to put its nuclear missile capability on a par with that of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But the nuclear secrets furor is the latest sign of deep-seated doubts on Capitol Hill about the extent of the U.S. alliance with a reforming communist power -- doubts that we'll hear a lot more about as the election season approaches. Because as Bill Clinton showed in 1992, the China relationship is a great stick with which to beat up on the incumbent.
Fifty years later, "Who lost China?" looks set for a Washington revival. Following a Saturday New York Times report of nuclear secrets stolen by Chinese during the '80s, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott suggested Sunday that the issue should keep Beijing out of the World Trade Organization -- a matter Washington had begun approaching as a primarily commercial issue. The brewing backlash on Capitol Hill cuts to the quick of the U.S.-China relationship, whose economic dimension has grown far faster than its geopolitical dimension: While some regard China as a potential nuclear danger to the U.S., it also holds the largest share of Washington's trade deficit, and it resisted the temptation to devalue its currency amid the Asian collapse last year, behaving as a more important regional ally than even Japan.