China downgraded as intelligence priority

February 3, 2010 06:40

By Michael Mazza Friday, January 29, 2010

The Obama National Security Council has ordered the U.S. intelligence community to downgrade China as an intelligence collection priority. Though the president has made no secret of his desire to mend fences with America’s adversaries, this decision to “see no evil/hear no evil” from Beijing is cause for concern. The answer to any request to “please stop spying” should be simple: “No.”

The decision to downgrade China as an intelligence collection target (first reported by Bill Gertz in The Washington Times) is wrongheaded for what should be reasons obvious to the Obama administration: Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Chinese military spending has nearly quadrupled. That spending has transformed what was once dismissed as an ineffective military force into a formidable and heavily armed one. China’s air force can now establish air dominance over the Taiwan Strait and possibly over Japan. Its missiles can strike U.S. bases as far away as Guam. Its navy has commissioned more than 30 new submarines since 2000 and is now pursuing an aircraft carrier fleet. And the People’s Liberation Army has conducted successful missile defense and anti-satellite weapon tests. In short, China is fielding a force designed to keep U.S. military assets out of the Asia-Pacific and that places special emphasis on attacking America where it is weak—in space and cyberspace.

The U.S. intelligence community recognizes the significance of the Chinese threat. In his National Intelligence Strategy (NIS), published last summer, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair names China as one of four countries that “have the ability to challenge U.S. interests in traditional (e.g., military force and espionage) and emerging (e.g., cyber operations) ways.” According to the Washington Times, the Chinese response to this document ironically served as an impetus for the White House decision to deemphasize China as a top intelligence priority. Following the strategy’s release, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman “urge[d] the United States to discard its Cold War mindset and prejudice, correct the mistakes in the [NIS] report and stop publishing wrong opinions about China which may mislead the American people and undermine the mutual trust between China and the United States.” Beijing objected to China’s inclusion in the report through diplomatic channels as well.

And now, over the objections of Blair and Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta, the National Security Council has ordered that the intelligence community downgrade China from a first to a second priority. Administration officials, Gertz writes, “said the new policy is part of the Obama administration’s larger effort to develop a more cooperative relationship with Beijing.”

A more cooperative relationship with Beijing may be something worth striving for, but reducing U.S. intelligence gathering efforts aimed at the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no way to achieve that goal. A relationship requires transparency, understanding, and free-flowing dialogue. China’s political system and military are notoriously opaque and Beijing does little to explain its intentions to Washington. As such, we have a limited understanding of China’s decision-making process. This is precisely why intelligence on China is so important. Not until we really understand that country’s inner workings can we have a fruitful relationship, and absent aggressive and effective intelligence gathering efforts (or Chinese political liberalization), it is impossible for U.S. policy makers to gain such an understanding.

The threat from China is not simply military: Chinese intelligence agents are active here and the PRC’s cyber-spying now makes the news on a regular basis. Google is only the latest victim in an ongoing series of Chinese cyber-attacks, whose other targets have included Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Dalai Lama. Yet as government officials have increasingly discussed Chinese cyber-attacks in public over the past year, China has categorically denied that it engages in any such activities. Chinese espionage directed at the United States, however, has not dampened Washington’s desire to cooperate with Beijing on issues of mutual importance.

So why does the administration assume that the reverse is true—that China is less willing to cooperate due to U.S. spying? Why does the administration believe that easing our espionage in China will lead to greater Chinese cooperation? None of Obama’s concessions over the past year has encouraged Beijing to cooperate on Iran or climate change. Nor will this concession; indeed, it is likely to have the opposite effect. If anything, it will encourage Beijing to offer the illusion of greater cooperation while seeking additional concessions. And without good intelligence on Beijing, attempts to negotiate with it on these issues will be unproductive.

This recent decision makes sense only when considered in the context of the Obama administration’s operational worldview. Put simply, the world’s great powers—the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia—share a broad set of common interests. As long as we demonstrate to China and Russia that the United States is a friend, the thinking goes, they will join us in pursuing those interests.

But the world does not work that way. On many if not most issues, U.S. and Chinese interests are in fact divergent. Thus the administration’s acts of reassurance are bound to be fruitless. The United States could halt entirely its espionage efforts against China, and still Beijing would have no interest in sanctioning North Korea or Iran or agreeing to U.S. climate-control proposals.

This latest concession will not persuade China to cooperate more fully, but it will teach the People’s Republic an important lesson: namely, that complaining is effective, and that no quid pro quo is needed for the United States to alter national security policy to satisfy Chinese President Hu Jintao. It is a lesson that the Obama administration keeps driving home, and one which China is certainly taking to heart.

Michael Mazza is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

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