China’s Espionage Assault on the United States

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In an earlier article, I discussed the meaning behind the “China Dream” of “rejuvenating” China as a great power – which essentially means supplanting the United States to create an authoritarian, China-centric global system (What Does China Want? Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” . In pursuit this objective, China uses all of its instruments of national power, to include a broad range of sophisticated intelligence capabilities, to target the United States. (1) James Andrew Lewis, Senior Vice President and Director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has characterized the United States as being engaged “in a massive, undeclared espionage battle with China, by China’s choice.” (2)

While strategic competition between the U.S. and China is driven by a complex mix of issues – security, defense, economic, diplomatic, and ideological – the “intelligence relationship [between the two countries] serves as a barometer of the larger political relationship.” (3) Given that espionage is a normal and accepted feature of the international environment, Chinese intelligence operations against the United States have been particularly virulent. Speaking before the Aspen Security Forum in 2018, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray characterized China as the largest, most concerning intelligence threat to the United States:

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China, from a counterintelligence perspective, in many ways, represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country…. It is economic espionage as well as traditional espionage; it is nontraditional collectors as well as traditional intelligence operatives; it’s human sources as well as cyber means. We have economic espionage investigations in every state, all 50 states, that trace back to China. It covers everything from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts and everything in between. So, the volume of it, the pervasiveness of it, the significance of it, is something I think this country cannot underestimate. (4)

Director Wray’s comments reflected U.S. intelligence officials and policy makers’ growing recognition and concern with the broad scope and nature of the Chinese espionage threat.  In its 2016 report to Congress, the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission found that:

Chinese intelligence collection operations against the United States pose a large and increasing threat to U.S. national security. Reports of these operations have increased sharply over the past 15 years. China has targeted a wide range of U.S. national security organizations, including military forces, defense industrial entities, national security decision-makers and government organizations, and critical infrastructure entities….Chinese intelligence services seek to collect a wide range of information, from second-hand and unclassified information to classified information extracted directly from operatives within leading U.S. national security organizations….Chinese intelligence has repeatedly infiltrated U.S. national security organizations and extracted information with serious consequences for U.S. national security, including information on the plans and operations of U.S. military forces and the designs of U.S. weapons and weapons systems. (5)

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In 2017, the Commission reported that China “continues to conduct pervasive industrial espionage against U.S. companies, universities, and the government and direct efforts to circumvent U.S. export controls to gain access to cutting-edge technologies and intellectual property in strategic sectors.” (6)

Chinese intelligence operations targeting the United States are broadly scoped and employ a wide range of traditional and non-traditional intelligence collectors and methods. In 2018, the Director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center stated, “China will continue actively targeting the U.S. Government, its allies, and U.S. companies for cyber espionage.” (7) In 2019, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence stated China is “playing the long game, finding our weak points, using any means possible…to steal our data, plans, and technologies.” (8) Also in 2019, in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Director of National Intelligence assessed that “China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means.  China, in particular, “presents a persistent cyber-espionage threat…[and] remains the most active strategic competitor responsible for cyber espionage against the U.S. Government, corporations, and allies.”  The Chinese government, said the DNI, “will authorize cyber espionage against key U.S. technology sectors when doing so addresses a significant national security or economic goal not achievable through other means.” (9)

An analysis of 152 publicly reported instances of Chinese espionage directed at the United States between 2000 and 2020 conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that:

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  • 45% of actors were Chinese military or government employees.
  • 30% were private Chinese citizens.
  • 33% involved non-Chinese actors (usually U.S. persons recruited by Chinese officials).
  • 14% of incidents sought to acquire information on U.S. civilian agencies or politicians.
  • 38% of incidents sought to acquire military technology.
  • 48% of incidents sought to acquire commercial technologies. (10)

 As this analysis suggests, much Chinese espionage directed against the United States serves China’s economic and technology acquisition goals. The 2020 U.S. National Counterintelligence Strategy recognized the threat posed by a “more powerful and emboldened China” that is “increasingly asserting itself by stealing our technology and intellectual property in an effort to erode United States economic and military superiority.” (11) According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 80 percent of all economic espionage prosecutions allege conduct hat would benefit the Chinese state, and there is at least some nexus to China in around 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases. (12)

We should not expect the China threat, or the threat posed by Chinese espionage, to abate anytime soon.    At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called China “the most significant threat going forward.” China is “already a regional hegemon,” he said, and it seeks to become “the preeminent power in the world in the not too-distant future.” (13) In its 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence characterized China as “increasingly…a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas – especially economically, militarily, and technologically – and is pushing to change global norms.” (14)

China, the report continued, “will remain the top threat to U.S. technological competitiveness as the [Chinese Communist Party] targets key technology sectors and proprietary commercial and military technology from U.S. and allied companies and research institutions associated with defense, energy, finance, and other sectors.” (15) For the foreseeable future then, we should expect China’s aggressive pursuit of espionage – particularly against economic and technological targets – to remain a pervasive and critical threat to U.S. national security.

(1) National Counterintelligence and Security Center, National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States of America, 2020 – 2022 (Washington, DC: 2020), 2, https://www.dni.gov/files/NCSC/documents/features/20200205-National_CI_Strategy_2020_2022.pdf, accessed April 19, 2021.
(2) James Andrew Lewis, “Responding to Chinese Espionage,” Commentary, Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/responding-chinese-espionage, accessed April 19, 2021.
 (3) Susan V. Lawrence and Karen M. Sutter, China Primer: U.S.-China Relations, IF 10119, Congressional Research Service (Washington, DC: Updated March 3, 2021), 1, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10119, accessed April 19, 2021; Mark M. Lowenthal, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, 5th Ed. (Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012), 353.
(4) Tara Francis Chan, “FBI director calls China ‘the broadest, most significant’ threat to the US and says its espionage is active in all 50 states,” Business Insider, July 18, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/fbi-director-says-china-is-the-broadest-most-significant-threat-to-the-us-2018-7, accessed April 19, 2021.
(5) U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2016 Report to Congress: Executive Summary and Recommendations (Washington, DC: 2016), 13, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/annual_reports/Executive%20Summary%202016.pdf, accessed April 19, 2021.
 (6) U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2017 Report to Congress: Executive Summary and Recommendations (Washington, DC: 2017), 22, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/2017%20Executive%20Summary%20and%20Recommendations_1.pdf, accessed April 19, 2021.
(7) National Counterintelligence and Security Center, Strategic Plan, 2018 – 2022 (Washington, DC: 2018), 1, https://www.dni.gov/files/NCSC/documents/Regulations/2018-2022-NCSC-Strategic-Plan.pdf, accessed April 19, 2021.
(8) Remarks by Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Kari Bingen, “October 1 Marks New Start for DCSA,” DCSA Access 19 / 1 (January 2020), 6, https://www.dcsa.mil/Portals/91/Documents/about/err/DCSA_ACCESS_v9i1_web1.pdf, accessed April 19, 2021.
(9) Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence, Statement for the Record, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 29, 2019, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR—SSCI.pdf, accessed April 19, 2021.
(10) Center for Strategic and International Studies, Survey of Chinese-linked Espionage in the United States Since 2000, Survey of Chinese-linked Espionage in the United States Since 2000 | Center for Strategic and International Studies (csis.org), accessed April 18, 2021.
 (11) National Counterintelligence and Security Center, National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States of America, 2020 – 2022.
(12) United States Department of Justice, Information About the Department of Justice’s China Initiative and a Compilation of China-Related Prosecutions Since 2018, (Updated March 9, 2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/page/file/1223496/download, accessed April 19, 2021.
(13) Lawrence and Sutter, China Primer: U.S.-China Relations, 1.
 (14) Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, April 9, 2021, 4;7; ATA-2021-Unclassified-Report.pdf (dni.gov), accessed April 19, 2021.
(15) Ibid.

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The author is a retired U.S. Army officer and a retired civilian employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. He holds an MS in Strategic Intelligence from the Joint Military Intelligence College (now National Intelligence University), and an MA in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. His published work has appeared in The Journal of Strategic Studies, Israel Affairs, Parameters, The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and the International Bulletin of Political Psychology.

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