What if China had built lightweight H bombs and the missiles that go with them on its own, without any secrets obtained from spying against the United States? This is the reality that Washington must contend with. That China accelerated the process by stealing secrets should not distract attention from a more fundamental change. The details of how Beijing pulled it off are less important than the larger point that China appears set to field a regional force of missiles that will change the military-technical balance of power in Asia.
This marks the end of a Western monopoly on military technologies that began with gunboats and machine guns and extended over the years to nuclear weapons, stealth bombers and cruise missiles. An Asian state with military capacities built on advanced technology is something the world has seen only once before -- in Japan. Japan's defeat put the West back in the leadership position of world military power, because most Asian countries were new states, poor and focused on shedding their colonial past.
A world of new non-Western military powers is appearing before our eyes. North Korea fires a long-range rocket across Japan. Iran tests a missile that can reach Israel. Iraq builds a virtual mini-Manhattan Project. India and Pakistan set off A-bombs and start on the road to serious military arsenals, not the lone symbolic bomb kept for political prestige.
China, India and other Asian countries no longer establish their military power exclusively on rural peasants heaped into an oversized bloated army, an army that is now a serious drag on economic modernization. Now, hustling technocrats are part of a military-industrial complex that throughout much of Asia is becoming a major factor in perpetuating its own existence.
The United States may be way ahead of the Chinese and others in military and other technologies. But this matters less than the far more basic point that the West's exclusive ownership of them is over with. Done. Finished. No new arms control agreement will reverse this condition.
It is easy to search for the guilty -- to find someone who let it all happen. But in the words of Charles Dickens on the British military disaster in the Crimea, it was "nobody's fault." Technologies of wealth and war have always been related. The economic growth in Asia spawns new potentials -- in mass consumption and military weapons. However lax the security at nuclear weapon labs, however mistaken the United States was about shipping supercomputers off to Beijing in the misguided belief that it would strengthen the Chinese middle class, these failings only affected the basic trend at the margins. China and others in Asia will soon have arsenals that will make any outside country think twice about moving forces there in a crisis, or for any political purpose that crosses their interests.
No one even thinks about a world where the West no longer holds a monopoly on modern military power. Its implications are as large as they are unexamined. Usually the challenge presented by China and other big Asian countries is described entirely in economic terms. The question is whether they can be absorbed into the world trading and monetary systems.
What are the hoops that the West will make China jump through before it is allowed into the club? This challenge remains, for certain, but it is complicated by one related to Beijing's increased military potential. It no longer will be possible to dictate in a high-handed way what these entry conditions are. This is a problem not subject to technical fixes; rather it entails a new international system in which the West's military superiority no longer goes unquestioned and its ability to back-stop its vision of the future -- economic and military -- is sharply limited compared with what it was when it held the monopolist's advantage in advanced military technologies.
Unless a broader and more sober appreciation of these new conditions prevails, the United States may pin the blame for the loss of atomic secrets on someone, but it will miss the larger significance of what this loss means.
The writer is a professor at the Yale School of Management and author of "Fire in the East, The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age."