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The art of war meets the art of the deal

According to a Japanese proverb, “The skilled hawk hides its talons.” When China’s economy was smaller than the Netherlands’s in 1980, Deng Xiaoping launched an aggressive economic development policy with his famous dictum, “Hide your strength and bide your time.” Rather than chart a path towards becoming the “responsible stakeholder” that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick forecast in 2005, President Xi Jinping has unsheathed China’s aggressive military, economic and political policies in competition and confrontation with the United States and our allies.

{mosads}Beyond an increasingly intense trade war, the United States and China appear to be on a full-blown collision course, which includes ideological rivalry unprecedented since the Cold War. Consider some of the recent evidence:

  • Militarizing the South China Sea in spite of President Xi’s pronouncement to the contrary at a Rose Garden meeting with President Obama in 2015. China also has infringed on the economic rights of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
  • China counterfeits U.S. products and steals trade secrets through espionage and by requiring U.S. companies share technology secrets with Chinese companies in return for market access. Chinese theft of intellectual property, which is protected by patents, copyright and trademarks, is a direct attack on the rule of law in the United States and costs as much as $600 billion annually.
  • The United States is under siege from Chinese espionage, which includes exploiting its network of scientific, academic and business fellow travelers who enable China to penetrate U.S. innovation, military and technology sectors. According to FBI Director Christopher Wray, “From a counter-intelligence perspective, China represents the broadest and most challenging threat we face as a country.” China’s pervasive economic espionage was focused on all 50 states, “everything from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts.”   
  • The state-run China Daily published a four-page “China Watch” section in the Des Moines Register, which criticized U.S. tariffs on China and warned the U.S.-China trade dispute was requiring “Chinese importers to look to South America.” Xi deliberately left a Beijing return address on this blatant effort to use the freedom of speech guaranteed under U.S. law, which he denies his own citizens, to influence our political dialogue.
  • Using the “One Belt” initiative as cover for its debt trap diplomacy strategy, China is seeking to expand its economic throw weight, military power and political influence from Asia to Africa, where China recently opened a military base in Djibouti.  
  • China has sought to impose cyber sovereignty through its “Great Firewall.” Last year, China passed a cybersecurity law that requires network operators to reveal identities of users and their technical capabilities. Local and overseas firms must submit to security checks and store user data within China. China does not trust its own citizens’ freedom of expression and access to the world via the internet. Circumvention of China’s vast censorship and propaganda entails significant risk of discovery, given Chinese sophisticated monitoring technical tools.  

In their recent speeches, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence delineated a strategy for countering China’s extensive threats to U.S. national security.  They educated our citizens and made their intentions clear to Beijing with the August 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which focused on enhancing our military partnership with allies in Asia as well as countering China’s South China Sea military buildup, espionage and cyber attacks, and economic predation.

President Trump would do well to confront China in the realm of political ideology as well. There long has been tension between international humanitarian law and an individual state’s territorial integrity. International law implies a duty not to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states but makes exceptions for human rights violations, of which China is massively guilty. U.S. policymakers should be highlighting next summer’s 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre.

China would like to reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the U.S. military presence in the Korean Peninsula. Focused on economic predation of North Korea, which entails productive relations with Kim Jong Un’s ruthless autocracy, China has openly argued for reducing sanctions before North Korea completes denuclearization. Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, which is averse to using its full leverage over North Korea in line with U.S. denuclearization strategy.

The U.S. Intelligence Community should assess whether the leverage we gain from a more forceful China policy might translate into efficacious negotiations with China over North Korea.

In his definitive analysis of whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap, when rising power China confronts ruling power United States as Athens rivaled Sparta in ancient Greece, Harvard Professor Graham Allison concluded that, based on historical record, war would be more likely than not.   

Effectively contesting, containing and influencing China’s rise can result in avoiding military conflict while protecting our national security interests. President Trump is on the hook for additional policy measures to support the Defense Authorization Act as well as the intelligence collection and analysis on China’s reactions, which will inform him of whether his policies are achieving their desired aim.

Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

Tags China–United States relations Chinese espionage in the United States Chinese intelligence activity abroad Donald Trump Mike Pence Xi Jinping

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