In mid-February, a week after an American fighter jet shot down China’s spy balloon off the Atlantic coast, a State Department diplomat tried to turn the fiasco on its head by accusing the United States of also launching airships over Chinese territory.
After categorical denials from senior US officials, the Chinese spokesman, who referred reporters to Washington instead when asked about Beijing’s evidence, complained that the Americans had refused to share details of the balloon wreckage, which was being investigated “behind closed doors.”
“What gives such an investigation any credibility?” he asked the extent to which China is attempting to save face. Beijing’s refusal to admit any wrongdoing is natural, experts said.
Meanwhile, the White House will have to juggle a red-faced opponent with an expectant public when deciding how much to reveal about recent results. The information could solve oddities, including the extent to which China relies on its tractable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance program, as well as how exactly Chinese leader Xi Jinping was convinced of the usefulness of a balloon with seemingly limited manoeuvrability.
For many Americans, seeing the cue ball cross the country was an introduction to brazen Chinese espionage technology, and the outcome of the incident divided opinion, according to a news week Survey commissioned last month.
A majority of US adults thought the balloon was a surveillance platform, but a third believed America would also fly airships over China. Two-thirds of respondents expressed concern about other high-flying objects over North American airspace, while nearly half said they don’t trust the US government to tell the truth about them, a finding perhaps difficult to disentangle from partisan politics .
In reality, the balloon would have been “more of an afterthought” for China’s leaders, said James Lewis, a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of the Strategic Technologies Program. “It was embarrassing for China and it made them look silly, so I don’t see them expanding it much.”
However, China is expanding its traditional surveillance capabilities, including its ships and planes operating away from sensitive locations around the world. In the US, Beijing is suspected of strategically acquiring real estate for signals intelligence. And in space, it controls an array of 260 spy satellites, second only to the US, according to a Pentagon report last year.
The Chinese government’s increasingly sophisticated cyberespionage is succeeding in part thanks to the US’s poorly secured networks, Lewis said news week. It has been pursuing intellectual property theft with impunity for 20 years, sometimes with the help of human sources, and costing American companies billions of dollars.
“They are very skilled at hacking and have improved remarkably in recent years. It was more of a Wild West culture when the PLA was hacking because they were hacking for personal gain,” he said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army of China. “Xi Jinping has it pretty much under control. They’re very aggressive.”
In September 2015, former President Barack Obama said outside the White House during Xi’s state visit that their two nations had “reached a common understanding” that would put an end to China’s “cyber-economic espionage for commercial gain.”
“We have agreed that neither the US nor the Chinese government will engage in or knowingly assist in any cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, for commercial gain,” Obama said. “The question now is: Follow words with deeds?”
It was the same press conference where Xi said China has no intention of militarizing the artificial islands it is building in the South China Sea.
“If you look back at the history of the Chinese Communist Party, this type of espionage activity was at its core. They do not necessarily take our laws as binding. It’s their political culture,” said Lewis, who said the 2015 agreement. barely lasted six months.”
“There are implicit signals to tell the other side to pull out,” he said — closing consulates, expelling diplomats and imposing trade sanctions. “When a country gets caught, they never admit it, but they cut it down, at least for a while. The Chinese not only didn’t reduce the scope, they expanded it. The Chinese do not understand the hint.”
National champions of the People’s Republic of China, from telecommunications to aerospace to infrastructure, have all benefited from illicit acquisition of technology.
“The Chinese have the largest hacking program in the world, far larger than all major nations combined. And they have stolen more of our corporate personal information than any nation, big or small, combined,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee March 8.
Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, warned American companies of the risks of Beijing’s forced transfer of technology “to bolster its domestic capabilities.”
“China has laws that allow them to … basically force these companies to provide information that can help expand their intellectual property and ultimately boost their own competitiveness in this space,” she said at the same hearing. “And they have also obtained information from our companies even outside of China and from Western companies through espionage and other means, and that in and of itself is a problem.”
“The American idea of separating defense and economy – this is not the same as in the PRC. They’re connected in their heads,” said Blake Herzinger, a nonresident collaborator at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you have an opponent who isn’t watching that kind of air gap, then his vision is the one that’s true.”
“A lot of countries keep this air gap because it’s a very fast race to the bottom when superpowers hack each other’s national champions and key industries,” Herzinger said news week. “It’s a very dangerous path and it’s unfortunate.”
Obama-era officials now working under President Joe Biden will no doubt remember Xi’s short-lived promise to honor tacit red lines. The U.S. government made an effort earlier this month to put the U.S. on a more proactive stance with the release of a national cyber strategy that, with government help, is shifting responsibility for cybersecurity from end-users to the private sector.
Under the new guidelines to curb ransomware and other cybercrimes, proposed rules include industry-wide cybersecurity standards, more secure computer systems, and screening of cloud service customers.
“Traditionally, governments have dealt with cyber espionage by building closed networks for their high end, national security, defense, intelligence and sensitive government communications. That’s getting harder and harder to defend because there are so many plug-in points,” said Mark Watson, Washington, DC office chief of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute
Western governments are now imposing “direct obligations, responsibilities and penalties for failure to protect” on the private sector, he said news week. “That’s the risk that governments are wrestling with, they feel they can’t leave it to the private sector and they can’t even leave it to the private sector to take advice. Now we don’t just need carrots, we need sticks.”