As an illustration of the shift in US perceptions of China as a potential enemy to a potential ally, recently released documents by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) show that the US had been spying on China’s atomic weapons programme in the 1960s, but in the 1980s, the US government had contemplated selling weapons to China.

On September 16, the CIA released roughly 2,500 formerly classified documents for public consumption on its website at A significant number of these documents touch on China.

cia china

A formerly top secret US intelligence report of December 13, 1960 predicted China would explode its first nuclear bomb between 1962 and 1964. This prediction turned out to be accurate, as China exploded its first atom bomb ion October 16, 1964 at a test site in Lop Nur, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

“Communist China is energetically developing her native capabilities in atomic energy. The effort has progressed steadily since 1955 with a substantial amount of Soviet aid,” said the 1960 report.

A later top secret US intelligence report of August 26, 1964, with the headline “The chances of an imminent Communist Chinese nuclear explosion”, proved even more accurate in predicting China’s atomic explosion of October 16, 1964.

This report said, “On the basis of new overhead photography, we are now convinced that the previously suspect facility at Lop Nor (Lon Nur) in Western China is a nuclear test site which could be ready for use in about two months. Clearly the probability of such a detonation before the end of this year cannot be ruled out.”

basin of lop nor
Satellite Picture of Basin of Lop Nor. Photo: Wikicommons.

This report cited overhead photography by US spy planes flying over China from August 6-9, 1964.

The CIA document. Photo:

Two decades later in the 1980s, the US switched from being a potential enemy of China to a potential ally, in the face of a common threat from the Soviet Union. A formerly secret CIA report of May 15, 1981 reveals that the US government was contemplating selling weapons to China, only a few months after Ronald Reagan, an anti-communist hawk reputed to be sympathetic to Taiwan, became president in January 1981. Ironically, US arms sales to Taiwan from the 1980s till now have been a source of friction between the US and China.

ronald reagan
Ronald Reagan. Photo: Wikicommons.

The US Defense Department had prepared an A-list and B-list of items for possible exports to China, which included aircraft, avionics, radar, computers and space technology, the 1981 report disclosed.

“China’s military deficiencies are many and its need for new and improved equipment is great, but civilian economists in China’s top leadership emphasize the need for belt-tightening in the procurement of weapons,” said the report.

“The Soviets would interpret any US move, no matter how modest, to help China strengthen its defense as further proof of a de facto alliance between Washington and Beijing. The Soviets are most likely to take strong negative action, rather than merely to protest, if they believe the US is assisting in China’s strategic weapons development,” the report added.

The CIA possessed information on China’s military capabilities, as evidenced by its 1981 report’s description of China’s air defense system as “seriously deficient”. The report said low altitude air surveillance within China was “spotty” and coverage beyond northern China was weak, while the People’s Liberation Army’s tracking radars were inaccurate.

McDonnell Douglas had offered to set up facilities in China to co-produce the DC-9/80 jet aircraft, which would have been the largest potential US military export to China worth more than US$100 million, the report revealed. As it turned out, China produced its ARJ21 Xiangfeng aircraft, which was based on the DC-9, but the first prototype was launched only in December 2007. By July 1985, the most significant Chinese purchase of US military equipment was only 24 Sikorsky helicopters worth more than US$100 million, according to a US Congress report on US arms sales to China on July 8, 1985.

McDonnell Douglas
A McDonnell Douglas prototype. Photo: Wikicommons.

McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997. On September 23, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Boeing’s headquarters in Washington state as part of his state visit to the US, the American aircraft giant announced it would establish its first plant in China to complete Boeing 737 aircraft for Chinese customers.

Toh Han Shih is freelance journalist and writer. He is a Singaporean citizen who has lived in Hong Kong since 2003. In Hong Kong, he has worked as a business reporter for South China Morning Post and in Kroll, a US risk consultancy. Prior to that, he has lived and worked in Shanghai and Beijing in 2003 and 2002 respectively.