China's Strategy of Political Warfare: Views from Congress
This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on September 28, 2023. Watch the full video here.
Seth G. Jones: Welcome, everyone. And I want to give a particularly warm welcome to Congressman Rob Wittman from my home state of Virginia.
Congressman Wittman serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee. And importantly for this discussion, he also serves on the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. He’s got a varied background, including holding a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Virginia Commonwealth University, a master of public health in health policy and administration from the University of North Carolina, and then a bachelor of science degree in biology from Virginia Tech. So congratulations.
Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA):
Dr. Jones: That is a(n) extraordinary list.
Rep. Wittman: Thank you.
Dr. Jones: And welcome to CSIS.
Rep. Wittman: Well, Dr. Jones, great to be here with you.
Dr. Jones: Let me first start off with a question, because I know you’re just back recently from the region.
Rep. Wittman: Yes.
Dr. Jones: You visited Japan, the Philippines, and then Taiwan, which I think as I speak to you here among other things you are wearing a tie from the president of Taiwan.
Rep. Wittman: Yes. Yes.
Dr. Jones: And I’m wondering what your major – in addition to the tie, what are the major takeaways from the trip on the Chinese and the importance of U.S. alliances in the region?
Rep. Wittman: Sure. Well, as I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the Indo-Pacific over the years, what really impressed me about this trip was the sense of urgency now with the countries that we visited, the governments there, such as the government of Japan is ramping up their efforts. They’re doubling their defense budget, which is very unusual for Japan, on a very steep ramp to be able to build a military that will now be the third-largest military in the world. They understand that enterprise that needs to happen.
Places like the Philippines, where before under President Duterte there was somewhat of an ambivalence towards the United States, much more of a populist viewpoint. With the new president there, President Ferdinand Marcos, they are all in about how they’re working with the United States to prepare against a potential Chinese incursion into Taiwan. Also, the activities that are happening there in the Spratlys. We were able to observe that directly. It’s incredible the aggressive behavior that’s going on there, and the Philippines understands that and is doing everything they can to push back against that.
Had a great meeting there with President Tsai, Foreign Minister Wu. They are also solely focused on making sure they deter the Chinese threat. They understand what needs to happen there. Their military service requirement now has gone from four months to 12 months. So they’re making all the necessary efforts in-country.
The big thing that was part of that discussion was the delay in foreign military sales from the United States, especially in areas that are important to them – that is, the backlog of F-16 sales and spare parts for their F-16s. So we had great conversations about that. Also, foreign military sales for Littoral Combat Ships to Taiwan, which is an effort that I started at the very beginning of this year to make sure that we are doing things to provide them direct assistance in a timely way. So we had great conversations there.
Also, earlier had the American-Australia legislative dialogue, had great conversations with Prime Minister Albanese as well as members of the parliament there in Australia. They are all onboard, too, with the AUKUS agreement and things that we are going to do as three nations in that area – Australia, U.K., and the United States. The most important part of that, that doesn’t make the headlines, is pillar two. What are we going to do in the areas of technology, artificial intelligence, quantum computing? That, to me, holds the greatest promise for what we can do to counter the Chinese in the area.
So the whole mindset of people in that region I have seen just in the past five years has changed almost a hundred and eighty degrees.
Dr. Jones: So two questions that come from that. The first one is to pick up on your point on foreign military sales and technology transfers. You know, there are many people who now note that the – our foreign military sales – our entire process, which includes elements of the Department of Defense, State, and, obviously, the Congress has an important role in that – as well as technology transfers are designed for a period where, you know, we weren’t involved in competition with the Chinese; we were conducting counterterrorism operations. What is your sense about how we start to fix these – some of the – foreign military sales in particular, especially getting some of the aid that Taiwan, for example, or other – or a range of other countries need and need quickly? When things start getting delayed and the timelines for conflict in Taiwan start to shrink, then time is of the essence.
Rep. Wittman: It is. We had a hearing the other day where we had folks from the Department of Defense and the State Department talk specifically about foreign military sales, why we see these delays, especially when timeliness is of essence with addressing the threat from China against Taiwan. The processes are too administratively burdened. We have to make sure we streamline them.
Another element that is equally as important as foreign military sales are the ITAR provisions, the transfer of technology. Here’s the ironic part of it. We have this AUKUS agreement, which essentially has the deepest agreement with any countries around the world in what we’re going to do to share technology – nuclear technology for submarines, artificial intelligence. Yet, under ITAR provisions, we actually treat Canada better than we do Australia. So that dichotomy is unacceptable, and I’ve been working with now the new ambassador to the United States – Kevin Rudd, former prime minister there – about how do we – how do we fix ITAR? How do we make sure that it truly is adaptive, that it responds to changing threats around the world, and make sure, too, that we operate with our closest friends and allies from a higher level of trust?
You know, we go into this sometimes with a – with an arrogance to say nobody can protect information like we can, and we look, you know, sort of speciously at our friends, which we shouldn’t do. And let me tell you, we – with what we’ve gone through here recently with security breaches, we should be the last ones to be lecturing somebody else about what they need to do. We need to make sure we demonstrate that trust. Timeliness is of essence. ITAR needs to change. Same with foreign military sales; it needs to reflect timeliness and needs to reflect the need for us to operate at much higher levels of trust with our friends and allies.
Dr. Jones: I know there have been some discussions as part of the National Defense Authorization Act discussions about potentially giving waivers to Australia and the United Kingdom. They are both Five Eyes countries, as is Canada. We share our most exquisite intelligence with those countries. Would that be a step worth considering?
Rep. Wittman: Absolutely, and we’ve had conversations about that. I do think you’ll see some of that reflected in this year’s NDAA to make sure the Five Eyes countries are all treated the same, and to make sure that we have that flow of technology and information and intelligence, as we’ve demonstrated in the past. The problem is there have been disparities there. We have to fix that.
If we are going to be able to leverage the capacity and capability that we need to deter the Chinese, it has to be a world-based enterprise with all of our friends and allies. We cannot do this by ourselves. We don’t have unlimited resources here in this nation. We don’t also have the capabilities in a number of areas that other countries have. If we can bring those things together, we truly have the ability to deter the Chinese. If we think we can do this by ourselves, we will lack the resources and we’ll lack the timeliness to really have an effect on where China’s going today.
Dr. Jones: I wonder if we can just pull up the screen for a second, because you did talk about some of the things that you saw while you were on your most recent trip. And so here we have some of the disputed territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. If we look at the Spratlys, which is what you mentioned here, so I’ve circled that for everyone here to see. These are contested what used to be atolls; now they are islands, they’re military bases that the Chinese has established. In fact, if we look here at one of them, this is Mischief Reef. This is our satellite imagery of Mischief Reef. We’ve got missile shelters. We’ve got point defenses. We’ve got radar installations. We’ve got runways that are used and can be used for military aircraft, combat aircraft, hangars. These are – these are military bases in disputed areas. How bit of a concern, even based on – is this kind of activity the Chinese are doing?
Rep. Wittman: Oh, it’s incredibly concerning. Their effort within the first island chain there in the Spratly Island chain is all about military dominance. We actually were able to get a very, very specific brief when we were there in the Philippines about the aggressive behavior against Philippine vessels that were trying to support a vessel that’s there on Second Thomas Shoal. The Sierra Madre is essentially the Philippines’ base of operations out of there. They were trying to go there to actually keep that in a good state of repair. Chinese coast guard vessels were using water cannons to blast these vessels that were trying to go there and maintain the Sierra Madre. We got to see, too, Fiery Cross Reef and all the militarization that goes on there. These are airstrips. They are radars. There are surface-to-air missiles. There’s only one intention for that, and that is to push others out of that region, to create a threat for others in the air defense identification zone to push others out. And we got some very incredible briefings about the activities of the Chinese in that area. They are – they are almost over the top in their aggressiveness.
Here's what Taiwan’s having to deal with. The Chinese fly almost on a daily basis into the air defense identification zone. When they do that, the Taiwan air force scrambles their jets to go intercept them because they want to make sure that they are creating at least that deterrent effect and understanding where the Chinese are going. And one day they may, obviously, make an effort to take the island. What happens, though, with that is those F-16s, because of that continual flight hours that they accumulate, become worn. And that is where we are right now in trying to supply the spare parts and the maintenance and the upgrades for those aircraft in order to make sure that the Taiwan air force have what they need. That backlog of military sales has a big, big impact.
So we see these incredibly aggressive efforts in that – in those areas and we know what the Chinese are trying to do. They’re trying to push others out. We know our freedom of navigation operations, they are always met with very aggressive actions by the Chinese. And they even engage other fishing vessels. I mean, when our – when our vessels go into those areas, it’s not just another Chinese military vessel; it’s scores of other vessels that surround our vessels to try to impede their navigation through the area. So China’s incredibly aggressive about what they’re doing. A lot of times it doesn’t make the headlines. This last one with the water cannons on the – on the support vessels there was really where people saw the true intent of the Chinese.
Dr. Jones: If we could just pull up the map one more time, yeah, I want to just hone in a little bit on Taiwan because we’re talking about it right now. It think one of the things that is interesting is you watch Chinese activity in this area, PLA activity in this area. We’ve seen them, as you’ve noted, push up to that 24-nautical-mile area around Taiwan. We’ve also seen them fly drones over some of Taiwan’s islands – Kinmen, Matsu. And you know, part of the broader question here is, are we doing enough to help Taiwan here? I think when we certainly saw the Russians invade Ukraine, the U.S. had provided some assistance to the Ukrainians so that they could defend themselves. Are we doing enough to help Taiwan defend itself in case of additional aggression in the future?
Rep. Wittman: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is to make sure we fill this backlog of foreign military sales. The whole idea about, well, you know, Taiwan is in line and we’ll get to you when you’re in line just doesn’t make sense. There needs to be a priority. We need to fulfill these foreign military sales.
The other things that we need to do are additional efforts to help train the Taiwanese military. We have Taiwan soldiers that come here. And as we talk to officials in Taiwan, their young folks that are coming in for required military service want a more professionalized training, and they’re getting that. That’s a good thing.
The additional efforts that we’re doing in providing military advice to the – to the Taiwanese forces there is incredibly important. Making sure, too, that we have, as we did somewhat in Ukraine but have to do more so in Taiwan, is we have to make sure we bring in as much as we can in supplies and support to Taiwan now, because if China tries to take the island you are not going to be able to bring in anything new. It’s going to be a highly contested environment. Everything will be at risk. So we are working to get as much into the islands as we can – to complete these foreign military sales; to makes sure we have supplies, munitions.
And this is a logistical fight, too. Remember, it’s not just about munitions, but it’s also Taiwan’s an island. Very different than Ukraine. So it’s about fuel supplies, it’s about food, all the things that China will try to do to cut them off if they try to take the island.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. It is interesting that when one looks at the differences between the Taiwan case and the Ukraine one on aid, the Russians never provided enough forces into Ukraine to block the border, so there was an open border once that invasion happened where the U.S., other European countries could provide all types of assistance to Ukraine through countries like Poland. It was an – it’s an open border. It still is an open border.
Rep. Wittman: Sure.
Dr. Jones: Taiwan is an island. And so once that – if there is a war, once that war starts we’ve already seen in reaction to some U.S. activity that the PLA will likely blockade the island –
Rep. Wittman: Yes, yes.
Dr. Jones: – which will make it very difficult to fly anything in or bring anything in on surface vessels, meaning that, you now, that really does highlight your point that if we’re going to get anything in before anything starts it has to come in now.
Rep. Wittman: Yes.
Dr. Jones: There is a broader question here, which is, you know, as you talk to your constituents, what – A, what do you take to be China’s main goals as it looks at the United States and expands its power? I don’t think you used the word “competition,” so it would be helpful to hear, what do you call it, what the Chinese are doing? And then sort of second, why should Americans, whether they’re Virginians or others, care about this – care about Taiwan?
Rep. Wittman: Sure. Listen, I think this is much more than a competition. I think it’s incorrect to call it a competition. A competition is where you level the playing field and said, let’s compete with the same set of rules. China has no interest in that. China wants to dominate. So China will use every means, nefarious or otherwise, ethical or otherwise, to win this competition, to dominate the United States, to dominate the world economy, to have a clear advantage over the United States, to displace the United States in markets, to deter the United States in certain activities that it does. So China’s all in on this.
I think what the American people are beginning to realize is that China – China’s intent is not to say, well, let’s see where things play out in a fair competition; China’s intent is to, indeed, weaken the United States – weaken it strategically, weaken it economically, to push it out of where it is today in its predominance economically not only in the United States but around the world. I think – I think more people are understanding that.
I think this, though. I think we, as folks in elected positions across the United States executive branch and the legislative branch, need to call this out for what it is. This is the threat of our lifetime. This is on the magnitude of what the world faced in 1938. It’s different in its – in its outward appearance; the Chinese are much more nefarious in certain ways. But if you look at the overall effort, it is the same. If we are going to be successful in deterring the Chinese and making sure they do not dominate us, that we still hold our place to have the strongest economy in the world and make sure that we stop their aggressive behavior around the world, which is exploitive and transactive, I want to make sure that we call this for what it is.
And that is, this has to be an all-of-nation effort. Everybody across the nation has to understand what it will take to win in this effort against the Chinese on world domination on their part, and it will take some sacrifice. This isn’t going to be something where you just keep doing what you’re doing and everything is going to turn out OK. And I think that’s incumbent upon all of us to call out the magnitude of this threat and to call out the Chinese for what they are doing. And that will mean sometimes reflecting on China in very negative ways.
The element of this, though, that is, I think, very impactful on China is that they do not like being called out. They do not like being looked at negatively by the world. They have this mindset that somehow what they’re doing is going to be portrayed in a good way around the world. It’s not. So we have to call it out for what it is. And we have to make sure, too, that we strengthen our relationships with our friends and allies. That’s the way we can most successfully deter and keep China from dominating the world.
Dr. Jones: So part of what we’ve talked about so far, one might call it sort of at the conventional level. We’ve talked about potential Chinese conventional action in and around Taiwan. We’ve looked at their military bases, some of their conventional activity in and around the South China Sea. The Chinese are also heavily engaged in a lot of activity below that threshold of conventional war. We’ve done a lot of work here, for example, on Chinese gray-zone, irregular, political warfare, to use a term that former Cold War U.S. diplomat George Kennan used. What is your sense about what are the primary activities the Chinese are doing below the threshold of conventional war? They’re certainly engaged in espionage, cyber operations, information and disinformation operations, some of the United Front work that includes activity in and around our universities and our colleges, cyber, economic coercion. So there’s a list of items that people have pulled together and looked at. What are the issues that concern you most along those lines?
Rep. Wittman: Well, I don’t think there’s one that predominates there. I think all of them should concern us because you have to look at these activities in total and they’re additive. So one complements the other and creates a greater level of risk. And the Chinese are looking at any way possible for their efforts to negatively impact the United States, and this is sort of the death-by-a-thousand-cuts analogy that I use in looking at this.
So what we have to do to counter that is to look at all of these activities, whether it’s the Confucius Institute at a university, whether it’s cyber espionage to go in and try to steal intellectual property or trade secrets from companies. We have to make sure that we up our game and look at every aspect where we can either identify these nefarious activities by China, that we can push those activities out, that we can call the Chinese out, that we hold the Chinese accountable for these activities, many of them right on the very edge of whether they’re legal or not, and where we have weakness and what we can do statutorily against the Chinese. I think we need to strengthen our statutes to make sure we counter these activities.
And I think we’ve looked at it somewhat innocently through the years in thinking, well, that people around the world are going to operate with the same level of ethics and standards that we have. We have to understand, China is not. China has no interest in any way, shape, or form of living up to the standard that we have in the United States. They will lie, cheat, and steal to achieve their ends. Let’s call it for what it is. They are willing to do that. And what we have to do is to say, no, we are – we are not going to stand for that; that’s unacceptable behavior. We have to hold them accountable. We have to identify the efforts that they undertake to do those things. And we have to make sure, too, that we understand the level of effort it will take on our part to make sure we counter and deter the Chinese Communist Party.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. And actually, that’s – I think what’s important is – if I can pull up this slide here for a moment, I think what’s important as one looks at the types of organizations involved, there is the Chinese Communist Party. We’re not talking about, necessarily, at least I’m not talking about just – you know, the Chinese population has to live in this country, so many of its population are being oppressed right now.
Rep. Wittman: Yes.
Dr. Jones: So what – part of what we’ve looked at are activities of the state and the Communist Party. But I think what’s interesting is how extensive Chinese activities are on all these fronts, but from multiple different organizations. So, as we’ve pulled up here, Chinese coast guard, the People’s Armed Maritime Militia which are active in places like the South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army and the various components of it from the air force to the navy to the rocket force to the strategic support force. We’ve also had some removals of a number of senior Chinese military leaders, as well as minister of foreign affairs. But also, Chinese intelligence activity – Ministry of State Security, United Front Workers Department.
I’m going to circle Ministry of Public Security for a moment because one of the things we have seen in the U.S. as well as overseas is the Chinese setting up locations – some might call them police stations; probably not quite the equivalent to a police station in the U.S. – but they have been used. And we’ve seen the FBI arrest individuals in the U.S., including in and around New York, as part of what is sometimes called Operation Fox Hunt, the monitoring of individuals residing in the United States by Chinese intelligence services. How big of a concern is this kind of activity in the U.S. for you?
Rep. Wittman: I think it should concern everybody. Chinese presence in the United States that are – that are out there actively going after Chinese dissidents is the tip of the iceberg, because if they’re here doing those things then I believe they’re also here doing other things to create influence in certain areas or to counter what are in the U.S. interest to push things in the Chinese interest. I think we ought to be very, very concerned about that.
And the question then becomes, what do we do to identify that and deter that? I think we have to be much more focused on the things that we do here in the United States, and it’s across the spectrum. It’s not just people that come here from China through our normal ports of entry; it’s also looking at, you know, what’s happening on our borders. What’s happening with Chinese individuals that are coming across our borders not wanting to be detected? You know, what’s the magnitude of operations that are happening there?
Dr. Jones: You mean those aren’t just innocent people coming across our border?
Rep. Wittman: (Laughs.) I would say not. I would say that they’re coming here for other purposes. So the question is, is how do we ramp up our efforts to identify those individuals? How do we ramp up our efforts to make sure we’re collecting intelligence to detect what those activities might be, how they’re looking to undermine every aspect of what happens in the United States?
And remember, this is at every level, so it’s not just at the federal level. We also see some activities at the local and state level. So I think we have to understand what the Chinese are willing to do. They have a very long-term focus on this and they will look at every place where they can exploit what they see as a weakness of the United States.
Dr. Jones: We have some questions from those online that I’ll get to in a moment, but I wanted to continue with this thread. We’re talking about the U.S. right now, and the U.S. homeland and Chinese activity here. I do think it’s important to also touch on some issues that I think everyday Americans see or have to deal with.
If we go to the monitor for a second, we’ll look at Daryl Morey, the general manager for the Houston Rockets; sends a tweet out critical of the Chinese and supportive of those in Hong Kong. The Chinese respond with a vengeance. They end up over time causing the NBA to lose about a half – over half-a-billion dollars. They take the merchandise off the shelves. We’ve seen, some would argue, Hollywood movie studios very cautious about portraying the Chinese government in anything – in any kind of a controversial light.
It is worth noting that if you look at the box office statistics in China, the top two movies in the history of China are both recent. One is “Wolf Warrior 2” and the other is “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Both are wars.
Rep. Wittman: Yes.
Dr. Jones: Wars against the United States.
Rep. Wittman: Yes.
Dr. Jones: So we are self-censoring, some would argue, in the U.S.; they are clearly not in China right now.
So I highlight these issues. Pressure; we’ve seen it with the NBA, we’ve seen it on information. Kids/adults go to the movies in the U.S. How much does this kind of an information campaign matter? And how much should Americans be alert to these kinds of activities?
Rep. Wittman: Well, it does matter. The Chinese are all about manipulating information and also trying to create their image in the way that they want the world to see them.
We had a great visit out at Disney with Bob Iger with members of the Strategic Committee, and it was interesting to get his perspective on things because we asked him specifically. We said, we know that Disney has a lot of content that they send into China. Obviously, they have their entertainment park there in Shanghai. Bob goes back to the days when Xi Jinping was the governor of Shanghai, so he knows him well. And we asked him, what’s happening with Disney content? And he says, yes, the Chinese do go to them and said, we want you to make this change, this change, and that change to the content that Disney sends into China. And where Bob says that they draw the line is if it changes the content of the production they refuse to do it, but if they’re little things like images that don’t make any significant content change that they’re willing to do that.
So it shows that the Chinese do have an influence. They’re very mindful of appearance. And they at every turn look to influence and censor the information that comes into their – into their countries. They are very, very much about manipulating how people view them.
Dr. Jones: So one other item along these lines which I know you’ve sponsored legislation on is TikTok, which I think any teenager, probably even younger generation in the United States is familiar with, for better or worse. Can you explain the legislation that you have sponsored? And what’s the broader threat here?
Rep. Wittman: Sure. Well, the bill, H.R. 4545, is about making sure that we take TikTok out of the state platform at these institutions. So we’re not going to control what somebody has on their personal cellphone, but what we don’t want is there to be a conduit on devices that are part of those universities, public assets. And why? Because in many instances, we see that China’s using that to be able to gather information, whether it’s on students or activities there.
I was out at MIT recently talking about the things that MIT does. They work there with the Air Force. They do a lot of very advanced work there. Again, if you have MIT-sponsored devices there, those are devices the Chinese will use to try to get insight into those activities, try to get information about what’s happening there.
So what we want to do is to be able to cut off what the Chinese will view as a conduit to get what ends up for them to be critical information. And it – and it may not be classified information, but it gives them many times an insight into what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and gives them an advantage. They will look to try to gain any advantage in any way that they can, and what we need to do is to – is to cut off those conduits that they’re using today – TikTok being one of them – to gather information.
And remember, too, the Chinese are all-in on artificial intelligence, and the baseline for success and advancements in artificial intelligence is data. The Chinese right now are doing everything they can to create as many vacuum cleaners of data as they can around the world because they know that will help them advance artificial intelligence. What we have to do is to make sure that we turn off any vacuum cleaner that might have them access data or information that comes from the United States or, for that matter, any of our United States interests around the world.
Dr. Jones: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about it, since you mentioned earlier Confucius Institutes, Thousand Talents Program. How do you balance having an open education system but also monitoring operational security concerns at our universities? So, you know, we certainly want and our country was founded on having individuals from across the world come. They benefit us in many ways. But we’ve also seen attempts to influence debates.
I mean, one of the things that was interesting when I was doing my graduate work at the University of Chicago, they had a Confucius Institute. That Confucius Institute was on campus. It was in a university building. They essentially refused to allow any discussions on controversial issues like Tibet, what had happened in Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong on a university campus. This is freedom of speech. So the university, at the end of the day, it’s not a good fit, so they shut down the Confucius Institute.
We’ve seen Thousand Talents Program also being used by the Chinese to try to gather information, whether it’s nanotechnology – we have seen some arrests, including at Harvard University, of individuals involved. And it’s not just in the Thousand Talents Program, which is not necessarily illegal; it was also about lying to – on Department of Education and Department of Defense contracts, and then lying to investigators that came to ask them questions.
But there’s a lot of effort to collect information, to influence what is going on in our universities. How do you balance that between, you know, having an open system, but also, you know, being careful here?
Rep. Wittman: Sure. That’s a – that’s a tough effort to try to find that balance. You know, our universities are great places where there is exchange of thoughts and learning takes place through that process, so you don’t want to shut that off. What you want to make sure, too, is that we aren’t creating vulnerabilities by critical information that gets to be part of, whether it’s research or discussions at universities, to have that used by the Chinese.
I think the key element of that is to make sure that folks at these university campuses are aware of what could be done with the information and the dialogue that they exchange. I think you just have to be more aware of it. I don’t think you – I don’t think you come up with a structure to say we’re going to stop this or stop that or stop this, because when you do that, in itself, becomes some form of censorship. I don’t want that. But what I want to make sure is that people think critically about what they do and what they say and who or what on campus may be the conduits for that to understand, am I saying something here that maybe could be used by the Chinese for a strategic or an economic advantage? So I think we just have to think more critically about how these things happen on a – on a campus.
And, two, many times it’s aspects of research – many times, research that has a national security implication – to think a little more critically about, well, how could this be utilized? I’ll give you a great example. When I was at university, I was doing some journal work and writing some journal articles on biological hazards, specifically some pretty insidious bacteria that cause fatal human health conditions. And it was interesting that I – at the time, when we were in this back and forth with what was happening in Iraq, I got a request from a scientist in Baghdad to send him a copy of the article that I wrote about these toxins produced by these bacteria, biotoxins – biotoxins that had a biological weapons component to them. So I looked at it and said, there’s a reason why this person is asking me for this, and it’s probably not for, you know, advancement of scientific knowledge. So I actually went to a couple of our federal agencies and said, by the way, just want to let you know that this researcher in Baghdad is asking for this information on toxins that have a biological weapons component to it. So they were aware of that.
So I think it’s just those sorts of things that you have to make sure that people are aware of now, so if they – if they start to see these little connections to make sure that they back up and go, whoa, wait a minute, let me make sure that I’m not either sharing information here or that I’m asking the right questions or pointing this out to the right people that may be able to dig a little bit deeper.
Dr. Jones: So a lot of this activity is – or some of it, anyway – is in the clandestine area, where the Chinese are operating either covertly or if they’re overt it’s not entirely clear always what they’re doing or how they’re trying to influence. Then there’s the espionage cases. And so, you know, in our most recent research, we looked at over a hundred Chinese espionage cases and found that not only are they pervasive in the U.S., but they are used to execute and plan all types of other operations that they are doing.
So you recently signed a letter requesting a briefing from the Pentagon and FBI on Beijing’s intensifying campaign on espionage. What can Congress help do along these lines to counter this activity? And what types of resources or funding do you think will effectively combat Chinese activity? You can answer this at the federal level or also the state and local level as well, but espionage is increasingly a problem from the Chinese.
Rep. Wittman: It is, and it’s a problem at every level, as I pointed out earlier.
What we have to be able to do is, first, gather the information to understand the magnitude of this problem. That’s why we asked the FBI and DOD to give us the details of that. We want some granularity as to – as to the pervasiveness of these particular efforts. Let’s make sure we identify the problem. And then I think we can look at, what’s the federal nexus?
But we also want to make sure that we look at things that are happening at the state level. You know, states like New Jersey and, for that matter, even Virginia are putting in place some pretty vigorous cybersecurity efforts. In Virginia, the National Guard has the Virginia Cybersecurity Task Force where they, I think, have one of the best cybersecurity efforts of any state across the nation in looking at what’s happening with this cyberattack effort by the Chinese.
Another thing, too, is to look at, what do we do to look at strengthening economic ties with Taiwan? The governor in Virginia has created now a Virginia-Taiwan Trade Office where we want to elevate that, again, to counter what China’s doing economically.
We have to identify the problem. We have to look at where are statutes either not being enforced, where the statutes need to be improved. What’s happening at state level? What’s happening at the local level?
This has to be an all-of government approach. It has to look, too, about what tools do we have either that we’re not using or not used fully, or what additional tools might we need to counter these incredibly insidious efforts by the CCP.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. It does appear even in our discussions with the FBI and the FBI counterintelligence folks that they are swamped right now in cases that they are involved in at the federal level. And we’ve talked to a number of states – New Jersey, we’ve talked to Virginia. But if we take, say, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, partly because of their location in and around New York City – same thing with Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area – they are swamped even at the state and local level with Chinese activity collecting in and around their states and trying to influence, and then as you noted the cyber level. So I think people do need to understand that this is more than just a federal issue –
Rep. Wittman: Sure.
Dr. Jones: – that state and local level are being sucked into this because it’s pervasive at that level as well.
Rep. Wittman: It is. The Chinese are absolutely opportunistic and aggressive. They will look for any opportunity, any weakness, and they will look to exploit it. And that includes local and state governments. And for folks at those levels that think, oh, you know, this is a – this is a national or international effort, we don’t have to worry about Chinese efforts here, they do. And it can be something as simple as a small town that has a water system to look at vulnerabilities in the water system. You wouldn’t normally think about that. You’d look at it and think, we’re living in the United States. We’re safe. The military protects us. Our local police departments protect us. But what happens is, is China’s very, very adept at looking at vulnerabilities. And while there may not be a direct threat, if they see that as the ability to layer threats they will do that. And it includes from the very smallest local government all the way up to the national level.
Dr. Jones: So one issue that I know you have stressed in the past – and that is an issue and it actually highlights in many ways the global nature of what the Chinese are doing not just in the U.S. homeland, not just in the area you just visited in the Indo-Pacific, but also globally – is Chinese technological activity. And I mean, the U.S. is a global technological and innovation leader. How do you characterize the threat from China? And before you answer, if I can just pull up the screen here, one thing that’s interesting is when you look here at various layers of internet technology, we’ve got a range of U.S.-based companies that we’ve highlighted with their software applications, storage and software infrastructure, and then PRC-based companies. There is intense competition that matters to a great deal if you look, for example, at a range of activity on where someone in the – in the Global South, what service are they using? Are they using Google, or are they using another provider to do that? And if so, what’s the algorithm behind what they’re able to see and what not to see? There’s a tremendous amount of influence that comes. So there’s a lot at stake in these areas.
And so can you talk a little about the threat that the Chinese pose and then – and then anything we can do along these lines? And then we’re going to try and wrap this up in about three minutes, so.
Rep. Wittman: Sure, sure. Well, you know, we’ve had some great visits with folks that are in the business of protecting systems from places like Oracle and CrowdStrike and others, so we understand the threat there from the outside. But the other aspects of what you point out here are equally as important as, you know, what happens nefariously internally within these systems. You know, what happens with other folks trying to influence that aren’t necessarily part of an algorithm, but are part of another orchestrated effort to have an influence in those systems?
And what we want to make sure we understand is not just the hardware elements, the things we do to protect those systems, but what are the – what are the software elements? What are the things that can happen in the development of technology? I mean, the next industrial revolution is going to be artificial intelligence. The question is, is, you know, how do we make sure we put the right boundaries on that or the right guardrails on that? Because AI can be used for some incredibly good things, but it can also be used for some incredibly bad things. I worry that the Chinese will try to use it for some incredibly bad things.
So as we see this – you know, we see the physical infrastructure, we see the software infrastructure, we see the data infrastructure – how do we make sure we understand all the different vulnerabilities in those systems? And how do we make sure we protect that?
And again, in our society, we don’t – we don’t want to shut those things down like China does to their people, but what we want to do is to put the proper guardrails on there. We want to make sure that we put in place the proper protections.
That takes a significant amount of effort; and it takes everyone thinking a step ahead, thinking about what could the vulnerabilities be here. It’s unfortunate we have to think that way, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of saying, what would somebody with insidious or nefarious intent try to do – i.e., the Chinese – and then try to stay a step ahead.
Listen, the people that want to do bad will always, unfortunately, be even a little bit ahead of what we try to anticipate, but we have to do – we have to do a better job of being proactive rather than reactive. Right now, through the years, we’ve been very much reactive in protecting systems, looking at how whether it’s information, software, hardware, data is vulnerable. What we have to do is not only to be reactive in protecting those systems, but we have to be more proactive in looking at what could a possible vulnerability be. And instead of waiting for the system to go in place and thinking about what the potential vulnerabilities are, when we’re designing these things and when we’re constructing these things, we have to get to the left of the curve and say, OK, as we design these things, let’s design them with the – with the mindset that there are certain things that people with nefarious intent could try to do. I think that’s the mindset we have to assume now.
Dr. Jones: Well, Congressman Wittman, thank you very much for spending a few minutes with us today.
Rep. Wittman: Thank you.
Dr. Jones: This is an incredibly important subject, as you’ve highlighted.
Rep. Wittman: Yes.
Dr. Jones: Thanks for all the work that you’re doing not just for your district, for your state, but for the nation writ large. And I think as you’ve highlighted today, the issues that we have to pay attention to from China are global in nature, and they cut across everything from conventional activity to gray-zone or political warfare activity, to technology, to even our education institutions. So thank you for what you’re doing in all of those areas to protect the nation.
Rep. Wittman: Thank you so much. Thanks for the opportunity. Thanks to CSIS, too, for the great work that you all do in really unfolding the layers of the challenges that we face in the future.
Dr. Jones: Great. Well, we look forward to seeing you again soon.
Rep. Wittman: Thank you.