A closer look at China's strategy — and why the US keeps losing to it

A closer look at China's strategy — and why the US keeps losing to it
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From 900 AD to 1905, China used a form of execution known as lingchi. Referred to as the lingering death or slow slicing, it became commonly known as “death by a thousand cuts.” Banned in 1905, Lingchi now has become a parallel for how the United States is losing a battle across many fronts to China.

Small mistakes and small losses compounded over time eventually wind up as a victory for our biggest strategic adversary. Each one, viewed singularly, fails to rise to the level of a ‘red alert’ or imminent attack. Viewed collectively, the small losses are much more subtle and dangerous.

The rules. The current Secretary-General of the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is Houlin Zhao from China. He started his second four-year term on January 1, 2019, following eight years as the Deputy. Originally founded in 1865, ITU’s current mission is to “allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect.” The ability to make mobile calls, access the Internet and send email all have roots in the ITU. Which is why Huawei is snatching up leadership positions on international standards bodies. The last time an American was the head of ITU? 1965.

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The schools. FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Council on Foreign Relations, “No country poses a broader, more severe intelligence-collection threat than China. They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China.” Yet we continue to allow almost unfettered access to our research and higher education institutions.

Public transport. Since 2014 two U.S. subsidiaries of the China Railway Rolling Stock CorporationCRRC MA in Massachusetts and CRRC Sifang Americas in Chicago have won four U.S. public transportation rail contracts valued at $2.5 billion. These contracts were won with massive subsidies that allowed CRRC to underbid their competitors by 20 to 50 percent. Their first win was the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston for $566 million and 284 cars. What’s on these cars? Wi-Fi. Surveillance cameras. Automatic passenger counters. Internet-of-things (IoT) technology. And Chinese software and hardware.

Surveillance. China’s ‘Social Credit’ system is designed to monitor the actions and behaviors of its population, making it easier to see who isn’t conforming. Now they appear to be sharing it. According to the State Department “We are aware of reports that ZTE has sold technology to the Venezuelan government which may be used to control access to food, cash bonuses, and other social services through the use of a social credit system as a political control mechanism. We oppose the sale of smart cards to the Maduro regime, since these could serve as a form of social control, deny social services, or otherwise contribute to human rights abuses.”

International development. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is ostensibly designed to connect China to over 60 countries across Asia, Europe and Africa. A recent article by the Council on Foreign Relations thought differently. “Some analysts see the project as an unsettling extension of China’s rising power, and as the costs of many of the proposed projects have skyrocketed, opposition has grown in some participant countries. Meanwhile, the United States shares the concern of some in Asia that the BRI could be a Trojan horse for China-led regional development, military expansion, and Beijing-controlled institutions.” 

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As noted in the book “Getting to Yes with China in Cyberspace,” America is fond of drawing clear no-go lines, while China is strategically ambiguous. China prefers to express increasing irritation. This is especially true for the Internet. China has consistently called for “cyber sovereignty,” looking to build their own version of the Internet. China viewed ICANN (originally a non-profit that made sure Internet domain names and IP addresses worked) as a U.S.-based governance group, and thought it was “unfair.”

At the time, the U.S. resisted “reforming these organizations in a direction that would take consideration of China’s interests because it reasoned that China’s preferred rules for cyberspace would come at the expense of Internet freedom. For its part, China believes that Internet freedom is an essential element of U.S. hegemony and a direct threat to the ruling status of the CPC.” The control of ICANN was transitioned away from the Department of Commerce in 2016.

In his Jan. 29 testimony this year before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats outlined the regional threat from China. Key bullet points from his testimony included:

  • China and Russia are expanding cooperation with each other and through international bodies to shape global rules and standards to their benefit and present a counterweight to the United States and other Western countries.
  • China has become the second-largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and the third-largest contributor to the UN regular budget. It is successfully lobbying for its nationals to obtain senior posts in the UN Secretariat and associated organizations, and it is using its influence to press the UN and member states to acquiesce in China’s preferences on issues such as human rights and Taiwan.
  • China and Russia also have increased their sway in the International Telecommunication Union through key leadership appointments and financial and technical assistance. They seek to use the organization to gain advantage for their national industries and move toward more state-controlled Internet governance.
  • We assess that China’s leaders will try to extend the country’s global economic, political, and military reach while using China’s military capabilities and overseas infrastructure and energy investments under the Belt and Road Initiative to diminish US influence.
  • We assess that China will continue increasing its maritime presence in the South China Sea and building military and dual-use infrastructure in the Spratly Islands to improve its ability to control access, project power, and undermine US influence in the area.

The philosophy of the United States has been compared to chess.

While a game of strategy, chess is about defeating an opponent and capturing the king. The approach by China is more like another game — “Go,” perhaps best described in an article from Auto News discussing how soon Chinese automakers will come to America: “The object of Go is to control territory. The game requires great patience and endurance. Champion Go players often win by lulling their opponents into a false sense of security.”

It’s not just that we’re playing the wrong game. We’re playing the wrong game with the wrong strategy.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.