as it was for those outsiders tasked with making sense of it. And that was no easy job, as a collection of recently declassified US National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) reveals.
Published for the first time in print, CD-ROM and online, ?Tracking the Dragon? is a volume of 71 NIEs compiled by analysts at the CIA's National Intelligence Council.
Together, they provide an at times fascinating insight into US efforts to understand and formulate policy responses to developments such as the Great Leap Forward and the chaotic twists and turns of the Cultural Revolution.
As former analyst Robert Suettingter writes in the introduction, the papers are "foundation stones" for a work still in progress – American efforts to understand the policies of the People's Republic.
With virtually nothing in the way of official contact between the two sides, the papers also show the frustration of US analysts at being almost as much in the dark as anyone else.
That intelligence gap came most starkly to light with China's detonation of its first nuclear weapon.
Although earlier reports had predicted a test in 1963, a subsequent report in late August 1964 said that while the test site was in an advanced state of preparation, China did not have enough fissile material to conduct an explosion before at least the end of the year. Instead a test took place on October 16.
From then until the early 1970s, the papers show how analysts battled to keep pace with developments as China quickly mastered the technology for putting a nuclear warhead on a guided missile and tested its first thermonuclear weapon.
Despite its melodramatic title, ?Tracking the Dragon? offers a look back at a time when China was indeed seen by many in the West as the dangerous "dragon" that Napoleon once warned against waking.
While at times a little dense – and, naturally, heavily pro-American in flavor – for those with an interest in the evolution of US-China relations, "Tracking the Dragon" is worth dipping into.
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