Responding to Chinese Espionage

The announcement that 10 Chinese intelligence officers have been indicted for espionage, the most recent in a series of actions, highlights three uncomfortable truths:

  1. We are in a massive, undeclared espionage battle with China, by China’s choice.
  2. The traditional remedies to manage espionage will not work in this battle.
  3. The response most likely to be effective requires new partnerships with allies such as Germany, Japan, and Canada, something this Administration can find difficult to do.

Chinese espionage against the United States has reached unprecedented levels, greater than anything seen in the Cold War. China, despite loud claims to the contrary in its government-controlled media, is still reliant on Western technology. Stealing jet engine technology is a long-standing goal for the Chinese, part of a larger effort to use the stolen intellectual property, massive government subsidies, and heavy-handed trade tactics to launch a domestic airline industry to challenge Western companies. These tactics have been used in many other industries—from solar power to high-speed trains—and prompted the recent ban on the Chinese company Fujian Jinhua for the likely theft of U.S. semiconductor technology.

China does not like to see its spies indicted, but indictments are no longer enough. China blithely ignores the norms of international practice when it serves its interest to do so, such as in building artificial islands hundreds of miles from its coast, announcing that this makes the seas Chinese national waters, and when the Hague Court of Permanent Arbitration (set up in 1899 to peacefully settle international disputes) rules against them, simply dismissing the decision. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is the last surviving of the Leninist parties that rejected bourgeois norms. It is a strangely contorted communism, but it is sufficient to ensure that China’s leaders will not follow international rules unless bribed or compelled.

There is a menu of normal responses when an opponent’s spies are caught en flagrante, ranging from indictments and expelling diplomats to recalling ambassadors and imposing trade or financial sanctions. However, the United States has run through the list with Russia with little effect. These are tools designed for peacetime and depend on a shared concern for proper relations among states. But our major opponents do not care about approaches, and this is not peacetime. This is a new kind of conflict short of armed force but still damaging. It is not a Cold War, so military power is not that helpful, and we have not developed the policies needed to respond to either China or Russia.

In any case, the Chinese do not respect our military power. They will probably seek to avoid overt clashes, but the United States’ failure to win two wars while letting ships, aircraft, and weapons slide into decline has led more nationalistic Chinese to develop a healthy disrespect. Chinese policymakers contrast the political turmoil in Washington with their tightly regimented politics and conclude that the Chinese model is superior. The Chinese believe that they only have to wait to surpass the United States. This is a mistake—the stories of most nations that have chosen a president-for-life do not have happy endings, but many assume the U.S. power is fated to decay, and this makes China both bolder in challenging us and less inclined to negotiate.

Chinese espionage is an unhappy policy problem—an opponent intent on challenging the United States and determined to steal technology but unresponsive to the traditional policy tools for managing espionage. The deeply intertwined supply chains of both nations, developed when relations were better, make some in the United States hesitant to confront China. The pragmatic argument that the short-term pain of confrontation will be less than the long-term damage from failing to change China’s behavior is unpersuasive for many Americans, the same way (using an ancient analogy) people were unwilling to admit the need to confront authoritarian states in the 1930s.

The analogy is of course, exaggerated, but Europe in the 1930s confronted an opponent determined to reshape the international order where traditional diplomacy was ineffective. China will not follow precedents from the 1930s or the Cold War in its effort to secure global leadership. But it, like the Russians, will not compete on our terms. This new game baffled the last two administrations, but it is by no means an irretrievable situation, and those who say we cannot change Chinese behavior reflect a paucity of new thinking in U.S. strategy. We can no longer assume the innate superiority of the United States and the West. But China has many vulnerabilities, and while this contest might take years, it is winnable. The alternative—a world organized to suit a ruthless Leninist government—is not what anyone (even the Chinese) should want.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center show a global lack of confidence in President Xi and a striking “lack of enthusiasm” for the idea of China’s global leadership. Conversely, the United States is still the majority choice for the world’s leading power. Retaining this leadership means we will need to order our own house, starting with redirecting resources from the conflict in Afghanistan and addressing the economic and social problems that demonstrably hamper us as a competitor. It means rethinking or replacing Bretton Woods institutions, like the World Trade Organization, which has failed repeatedly to oppose China’s industrial policies.

Most importantly, it means creating a global partnership, not to go to war with China but to use the tools of diplomatic and economic coercion to compel change. This cannot be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but some new, less formal grouping—think ‘Five-Eyes-Plus”—that agrees on the risk from China and will coordinate policies to curb Chinese espionage. The Chinese will say it is containment, but in fact, it is compulsion, not to exclude China but to get it to behave. A coordinated international response to China is the cornerstone of a campaign to stop China’s espionage.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program