After ignoring warnings, the US struggles with China’s aggression

Sitting in a WTOP studio in late September 2016, well before the world witnessed the upheaval that Russian interference in the upcoming U.S. election would unleash, former CIA director Michael Hayden issued a stark and prescient warning.

Describing his view of U.S. threats, Hayden said, “Out there 10 to 15 years, and way up on the let’s-get-important-side, is the Sino-American relationship. This is the one that’s pass-fail. This is the one you’ve got to get right.”

Contrasting the situation with the threat from Russia, which he called a revanchist power, Hayden warned, “This is all about an emerging power — the Chinese — and a status quo power ——ourselves. History has seen a lot of examples of status quo and emerging powers. It generally ends up in global war.”

That warning was ostensibly ignored.

“There’s no question they didn’t heed the warnings,” said Nick Eftimiades, a retired U.S. intelligence officer and expert on Chinese intelligence operations.

“We had very active policy debates over the past two decades, but there was a fair amount of arrogance that everyone was accepting of the American way of life; and there was a fair amount of ignorance of what the Chinese Communist Party was actually all about,” Eftimiades said.

As a result, war-footing is precisely where the U.S. and China stand — not kinetic but information warfare, which experts say can be just as deadly.

Bullets and bombs are not a part of the equation at the moment. But there is far more to the confrontation between the two nations than just frosty stares on television, sanctions, consulate closures and salvos of stinging rhetoric designed to malign each other.

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“Unprecedented” is how numerous national security officials describe the threat from Beijing in 2020.

“It’s beyond imagination”, said Doug Wise, former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Wise said it’s not just the massive scale of China’s spying apparatus, but its intense focus across numerous disciplines. Whether it’s “human intelligence, signals intelligence or cybercrime, the intensity is beyond our ability to comprehend,” Wise said.

A snapshot of those capabilities and Beijing’s intentions were recently exposed by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, or NCSC.

“We assess that China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection,” William Evanina, director of NCSC, said.

To that end, Evanina suggested, “China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China.”

The problem U.S. is wrestling with is detecting how Beijing is launching its attacks.

Exposing Beijing’s tactics

There is an adage in Western intelligence circles: “Mandarin is the first level of encryption.”

That saying, according to former Navy Seal Mike Janke, co-founder of Silent Circle, which built the super-secure Blackphone, is “one of the reasons the Chinese are able to get away with stuff they do in the West.”

Janke said a key part of Beijing’s success in targeting the West is its firewall within China. But another simple but effective weapon is, “Mandarin, because it is not spoken in the West and our computers don’t correlate it correctly.”

U.S. government officials said Beijing uses every possible resource at its disposal, including the language difficulty, to pursue its agenda.

Janke noted that Chinese intelligence runs secret spy scholarship programs that train Chinese nationals, change their names and send them to the U.S. to infiltrate American companies and organizations.

It is among the most risky but successful tactics Beijing employs.

But another, often overlooked, weapon is China’s consulates. The State Department forced Beijing to close its Houston consulate in July, because it is believed to have been directing efforts to steal intellectual property and support a network of undercover intelligence and military officers operating in 25 cities.

Some of their activities included hunting down political rivals of China’s President Xi Jinping, Communist Party critics, and hunting down refugees and forcing them to return to China.

The Chinese government also uses cold, hard cash to get its way in the U.S.

In January, Dr. Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, was indicted after it was discovered that he had, unbeknown to the university, been paid more than $1.5 million to be a “strategic scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology in China.

Media also figures prominently, as Beijing tries to sway the political process. Evanina suggested in his statement that the Chinese government is eager stop the U.S. government’s pressure.

“Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston consulate, and actions on other issues,” Evanina said.

Beijing has harshly criticized the administration’s statements and actions on Hong Kong, TikTok, the legal status of the South China Sea and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market.

What now?

Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post titled “There’s no Cold War with China — and if there were, we couldn’t win.”

Coats, a senior adviser at the law firm King & Spalding LLP, said bluntly that the U.S. shouldn’t assume that a Cold War with China would follow the same format of the 34-year affair the U.S. had with the Soviet Union, which was, according to Coats, “a military and cultural contest.”

Furthermore, he said, “The Soviet Union was not our major trading partner, was not a major holder of our debt and was not tightly interconnected in the supply chains critical to our (and the world’s) economy.”

Simply put, Coats said America’s problem is we don’t have a coherent strategy when it comes to China; but China, on the other hand, is “clearly pursuing (its) foreign policy goals according to a carefully calculated long-term strategy.”

Other countries have already recognized this and are making key adjustments.

Eeva Eek-Pajuste, the director of Estonia’s Lennart Meri Conference that is part of the International Centre for Defence and Security, began warning the West in 2018 to take a more proactive posture with Beijing.

“Europe needs to quickly educate an amount of good-level China specialists, not just Sinologists, who speak the language and love the culture, but the specialists, who are able to orientate in China’s mindset and policy culture,” Eek-Pajuste said.

In failing to do so, “We shall lose this game,” Eek-Pajuste said.

How long this game lasts, according to Eftimiades, is uncertain.

“China plays a long game. Were the elections to turn out in their favor, with a new president, they’ll work very aggressively to get back on track,” Eftimiades said.

But if Trump wins and the posture between the two countries remains the same, the prospect of a real war remains a possibility.

Hayden said Wednesday, “I’m not sure if a war will happen,” but almost four years after his 2016 warning he said, “It’s not going well at all. It’s bad for a lot of reasons, which are both the fault of the U.S. and China.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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