The great Chinese take away

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“The Atlantic” has a very long and a very good article about the Chinese espionage in America (you can imagine the situation is not dissimilar in other countries of interest):

Donald Trump has made getting tough on China a central aspect of his foreign policy. He has focused on a trade war and tariffs aimed at rectifying what he portrays as an unfair economic playing field—earlier this month, the U.S. designated China as a currency manipulator—while holding onto the idea that China’s powerful leader, Xi Jinping, can be an ally and a friend. U.S. political and business leaders for decades pushed the idea that embracing trade with China would help to normalize its behavior, but Beijing’s aggressive espionage efforts have fueled an emerging bipartisan consensus in Washington that the hope was misplaced. Since 2017, the DOJ has brought at least a dozen cases against alleged agents and spies for conducting cyber- and economic espionage on behalf of China. “The hope was, as they develop, as they become more wealthy, as they start being a part of the club of developed nations, they’re going to change their behavior—once they get closer to the top, they’re going to operate by our rules,” John Demers told me. “What we’ve seen instead is [China] becoming better resourced and more methodical about the theft of information.”

I would like to believe in the theory that prosperity leads to liberalisation as much as the next guy, but I suspect that it works better in smaller states allied to democracies (as it happened, for example, in South Korea and Taiwan), even in the absence of democracies actively pressing for change. Countries like Russia and China seem like a different kettle of fish; they see themselves as the poles of opposition to the West. Their whole raisson d’etre hinges on being un-America in some important aspects.

As I blogged the other week, we should not necessarily treat China as an enemy, but we should not treat it as a friend and ally either. We need to be realistic about what China is, what it wants and how it operates. Which in practice means at the very least extreme caution around security issues broadly construed. From that point of view, incidents like these are unforgivable:

In a table-top pandemic exerciseat Johns Hopkins University last year, a pathogen based on the emerging Nipah virus was released by fictional extremists, killing 150 million people.

A less apocalyptic scenario mapped out by a blue-ribbon U.S. panelenvisioned Nipah being dispersed by terrorists and claiming over 6,000 American lives.

Scientists from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) have also said the highly lethal bug is a potential bio-weapon.

But this March that same lab shipped samples of the henipavirus family and of Ebola to China, which has long been suspected of running a secretive biological warfare(BW) program.

Or this:

A China-backed company mining in South Australia’s Woomera Prohibited Area appears to be in breach of the legal undertakings it made to win access to Australia’s most sensitive military testing range.

Defence officials have been warned that the company’s own internal review of security of the Cairn Hill mine found a series of potential threats in a new joint-venture, including “the real possibility of electronic eavesdropping”.

Australian registered but Chinese financed, CU-River Mining secured the mine on the Woomera range under a 2014 permit.

In 2017, the company struck an $800 million expansion deal with the Australian arm of Chinese steel giant JiuJiang Group to extract millions of tonnes of iron ore.

Or this:

A University of NSW computer science professor co-authored researc­h with Chinese generals linked to Beijing’s nuclear weapons program and supervised at least nine PhD students from China’s top military academy.

Professor Xue Jingling has been named by Beijing as an elite “Thousand Talents Scholar”, and maintains ongoing links to China’s National University of Defence Technology.

NUDT, which operates under the direct leadership of China’s Central Military Commission, has been blacklisted by the US ­because its supercomputers are “believed to support nuclear ­explosive simulation and military simulation activities”.

Professor Xue, an Australian citizen who has received grants from the Australian Research Council and the CSIRO, has worked at UNSW since 1999.

One of the reasons why I don’t think treating China as an enemy is wise is because it feeds into Chinese Communist Party’s paranoia and persecution mania, as “The Atlantic” continues:

Dennis Wilder, who retired as the CIA’s deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific in 2016, told me that the Chinese approach to espionage is defined by the fact that its leaders have long seen America as an existential threat. “This is a constant theme in Chinese intelligence—that we’re not just out to steal secrets, we’re not just out to protect ourselves, that the real American goal is the end of Chinese Communism, just as that was the goal with the Soviet Union,” he said.

Wilder, who still travels to the country as the director of an initiative for U.S.-China dialogue at Georgetown University, told me that Chinese officials regularly bring up past American covert action such as the CIA’s ill-fated support for the independence movement in Tibet beginning in the 1950s, and its infiltration of agents into China via Taiwan. And they still see an American hand in events such as the protests in Hong Kong today. “So we’re all sitting here scratching our heads and saying, ‘Do they really believe we’re behind Hong Kong? And the answer is, yes they do. They really believe that the fundamental American goal is the destruction and demise of Chinese Communism,” he said. “Now, if you believe that the other guy is bent on your destruction, then it’s kind of anything goes. So for the Chinese, stealing, espionage, cyberespionage against American corporations for the good of the Chinese state, are just part and parcel of the need for survival against this very formidable enemy.”

It’s simply incorrect to say that “the fundamental American goal is the destruction and demise of Chinese Communism.” Sure, not many people like Chinese communism, but the Western consensus always revolved around the hope (probably futile, as previously mentioned) that the system will evolve into a more democratic one as a result of its greater wealth and greater openness to the world, rather than actively working to help end it, a la Reagan versus the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

I do hope that communism ends in China, like it has done almost everywhere else around the world, if only for the sake of the Chinese people who deserve to enjoy freedom and democracy the way we do. But I don’t know if or when and how it will happen. It is a conundrum that might only get solved should China eventually collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. But the wait might be long and in the meantime vigilance and security containment are needed.

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