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Russia monopolizes headlines, but China's threat to the U.S. goes way beyond the trade war

Whether the Trump White House will listen to the U.S. intelligence community's warnings remains unclear, however.
China's Chang'e-4 lunar probe landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019.China National Space Administration via CNS / AFP - Getty Images file

Top-level Chinese and American negotiators sat down for two days of important meetings last week seeking to resolve the two country’s lingering trade dispute. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that China’s threat extends far beyond economics. The country's efforts to penetrate American society and gain influence are insidious — and growing.

At a joint appearance before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and in a report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the heads of the major U.S. intelligence agencies lumped Russia and China together as a joint threat. Indeed, with the termination of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty — or INF Treaty — between the U.S. and Russia, there are fewer and fewer constraints left to prevent an arms race between the world's largest nuclear powers.

China’s efforts to penetrate American society and gain influence are insidious — and growing.

Still, intelligence heads seemed particularly worried about Chinese activities. “The Chinese counterintelligence threat is more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any counterintelligence threat I can think of,” FBI Director Christopher Wray testified.


Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, agreed: “China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways — to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure. Moscow's relationship with Beijing is closer than it's been in many decades.”

The official intelligence written report goes even further: “China remains the most active strategic competitor responsible for cyber espionage against the US Government, corporations, and allies. It is improving its cyber attack capabilities and altering information online, shaping Chinese views and potentially the views of U.S. citizens.”

China has many different kinds of weapons in its arsenal, some more obvious than others. Last July, it launched its highest-resolution spy satellite, Gaofen-11. U.S. military intelligence believes it also has a host of ground-based anti-satellite missiles capable of targeting American spy and communications satellites. And on January 3, China successfully landed its Chang'e-4 lunar explorer on the "dark" side of the moon, the a global first. “The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger,” said President Xi Jinping.

In 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, not far from the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait that controls access to the Red Sea and coast of Yemen. Yemen is currently in the throes of a brutal civil war that’s pitting American-backed Saudi Arabian forces against Iranian-backed insurgents.

And China also reportedly tested the world’s most powerful naval gun that uses electromagnetic energy, not gunpowder, to propel its rounds with precision to a target more than 120 miles away at 1.6 miles per second. The weapon may be ready for deployment as soon as 2025, sources told CNBC. The outlines of the next generation of warfare is already taking shape.

The American intelligence community appears especially concerned by China’s patience. Chinese ambitions seems to be part of a much broader strategy — one that goes far beyond military capabilities and seeks to “significantly expand China’s penetration of the economies and political systems” of the U.S. and the West, according to the intelligence report.

Some of this expanded espionage appears focused on colleges and universities. “The use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country,” the FBI’s Wray said in 2018. “It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline.”

The problem is that the current round of trade talks left little space for discussion of these questions.

Two Chinese-government controlled institutions in particular have attracted the attention of federal officials — the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations and the Confucius Institutes. The latter organization is located on over 100 campuses across the U.S. According to Senate testimony on Tuesday, there are at least 300 Confucius Institutes around the world, all run by China’s Ministry of Education, which Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to remain under the control of the Communist Party. “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad,” Li Changchun, a former member of China’s ruling politburo, said in a speech in Beijing back in 2011. “It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power.”

In the U.S., at least 15 such institutes have been closed by their host colleges in the past few years. As Penn State University Dean Susan Welch observed in 2014, “several of our goals are not consistent with those of the Office of Chinese Languages Council International, known as the Hanban, which provides support to Confucius Institutes throughout the world.”

The problem is that the current round of trade talks left little space for discussion of these questions. And President Donald Trump himself has repeatedly downplayed the advice of his intelligence experts — although typically when Russia is the topic, not China.

Obviously, not every Chinese student in the United States is a spy, something Trump advisor Stephen Miller unhelpfully seemed to suggest last year when he urged a ban on all Chinese student visas. Of equally questionable value has been the State Department’s restriction on visas granted to Chinese students in such critical fields as robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing. Might we not gain as much from their insights and quick minds as we might risk losing to a potential enemy?

When decisions like these are seemingly driven by prejudice, not considered policy, America sends an incredibly troubling message to Chinese students and China itself. This is not how you demonstrate to visitors and immigrants the benefits of a democratic way of life.

Ultimately, whether the Trump White House has the capacity to really combat this threat remains unclear. It can start by listening to the warnings being issued by experts in the intelligence community. China is unquestionably a formidable adversary, which the United States must learn to challenge in a clear-eyed fashion and without exaggeration.