China menace decoded by the USA
Amb Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF

If Sino Indian relations have reached an inflexion point following China's breach of all agreements as demonstrated by their recent actions in Eastern Ladakh so too have Sino-US relations. While the latter had been under stress, since the advent of the Trump administration, four remarkably frank speeches by the US FBI chief, NSA, Attorney General and Secretary of State spread over about 30 days detailing Chinese perfidy in its dealings with the US suggest that the Sino-US divide is now too large to be bridged. Though the Democrats appear softer on China the need to reset ties with it to counter its expansionist proclivities and influence operations has gathered such traction in the USA that should they come to power they would have to tread the Trump path in opposing it much like they followed the Nixon path in cosying up to it.

These speeches candidly acknowledge that US policies contributed enormously to China's rise and were pursued in the hope that as it became more prosperous it would become more benign. This hope proved to be wishful thinking and as the US NSA put it constituted the "greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s." In a very similar vein the US Secretary of State asserted that "We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it."

The US NSA attributed the failure in US foreign policy to not heeding the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) ideology which seeks total control over people’s lives through economic, political, physical and thought control. He argued that China’s ambitions for ideological control were not merely internally focussed but the goal was to create a “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” and that the effort "to control thought" extended beyond its borders. This was being done through aggressive propaganda, economic pressure, and massive data collection on individuals often illegally, if not by outright theft, in order to influence. The following Chinese activities cited by him in this regard are noteworthy:

  • Near total elimination of all "unfriendly " Chinese media outlets and inroads into the English language media;
  • Routine deletion of accounts on tiktok criticising China;
  • Expulsion of US journalists from China in March to prevent independent reporting on the Covid crisis in Wuhan;
  • Pressure on many US companies like American, Delta, and United Airlines to remove references to Taiwan from their corporate websites. (The Attorney General cited several other US companies kowtowing to China due to pressure like Disney, Cisco, Google and Apple for short term economic gains.)
  • Use of financial clout and market access to pressure Hollywood into self-censorship and incentivize directors and producers to avoid topics that might not make it past China’s censors.
  • Developing leverage over individual Americans through collection of all possible data on them in part by subsidizing hardware, software, telecommunications, and even genetics companies. Huawei and ZTE, for instance, undercut competitors on price and install their equipment around the globe at a loss. This while putting out of business US and other manufacturers of telecom hardware enables them to collect data through “backdoors” built into their products.
  • Stealing data where it cannot be purchased. In 2014, China hacked Anthem insurance, collecting sensitive information on 80 million Americans. In 2015, it hacked the Office of Personnel Management, which holds security clearance information, acquiring sensitive data on 20 million Americans who work for the government. In 2017, it hacked Equifax, obtaining the names, birthdates, social security numbers, and credit scores of 145 million Americans.
  • This data is to be used "to target, to flatter, to cajole, to influence, to coerce, and to even blackmail individuals to say and do things that serve the China’s interests." (The US FBI chief in his speech pointed out that such data theft was "on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history." )
  • In addition to propaganda and influence operations, China uses trade to coerce compliance with its dictates. When Australia called for an independent investigation of the coronavirus crisis, China threatened to stop buying Australian agricultural products and to prevent Chinese students and tourists from travelling to Australia. When Australia refused to relent, Beijing put these threats into force, imposing an 80% tariff on Australian barley exports.
  • China has leadership positions within many global bodies. It now heads four out of fifteen UN specialized agencies, more than the U.S., UK, France, and Russia combined. It uses its position on these international bodies to parrot Beijing’s talking points and to install Chinese telecommunications equipment in their facilities. For instance, Zhao Houlin, the Chinese head of the International Telecommunications Union has aggressively promoted Huawei sales. Secretary-General Fang Liu of the International Civil Aviation Organization blocked Taiwan’s participation in General Assembly meetings and covered up a Chinese hack of the organization. China used its membership on the UN Human Rights Council to prevent criticism of its abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
  • China's reach even extends to heads of international organizations who are not themselves Chinese officials as in the case of Director-General Tedros of the World Health Organization who dutifully used Chinese talking points on the Wuhan virus. As late as mid-January, he claimed there was no human-to-human transmission of the disease. While opposing international travel restrictions he at the same time praised China’s own domestic travel restrictions on Wuhan residents. In other words, they could travel overseas, but they could not travel and potentially take the virus to Beijing or Shanghai.

The US FBI chief in his speech asserted that the "greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China. It’s a threat to our economic security—and by extension, to our national security." In this context, he pointed out the US had reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half were related to China.

The FBI chief further argued that China was seeking to displace the US in economic and technological supremacy "not through fair and lawful competition" but by any means necessary through a "whole-of-state effort". In this process it was using "a diverse range of sophisticated techniques—everything from cyber intrusions to corrupting trusted insiders" as well as outright physical theft. He underlined that "China often steals American intellectual property and then uses it to compete against the very American companies it victimized—in effect, cheating twice over. They’re targeting research on everything from military equipment to wind turbines to rice and corn seeds".

He revealed that through talent recruitment programs like the Thousand Talents Program China pays its scientists at US universities to secretly take our knowledge and innovation to China— including valuable, federally funded research. China then leverages its ill-gotten gains to undercut U.S. research institutions and companies, blunting US advancement and costing American jobs.

He expounded at length on China's use of malign foreign influence efforts which are subversive, undeclared, criminal, or coercive attempts to sway government’s policies, distort the national public discourse, and undermine confidence in its democratic processes and values.

The Attorney General noted that China had launched a blitzkrieg to seize the commanding heights of the global economy and admitted that the US had made possible the former's meteoric rise through accord of MFN treatment to it and easing its admission to the WTO. He lamented that the US was dangerously dependent on China for many products like PPEs, rare earths, APIs etc and that the latter had overtaken it in manufacturing way back in 2010. He went on to make a scathing attack on its trade practices and policies underlining that free and fair competition with China had long been a "fantasy" as it engaged in a wide array of predatory and often unlawful tactics like currency manipulation, tariffs, quotas, state led strategic investment and acquisitions, theft and forced transfer of intellectual property, state subsidies, dumping, and industrial espionage.

Citing a 2019 Newsweek cover story titled “How America’s Biggest Companies Made China Great Again” he indicated that it detailed how China lured American business with the promise of market access, and then, having profited from American investment and know-how, turned increasingly hostile. China he stated used tariffs and quotas to pressure American companies to give up their technology and form joint ventures with Chinese companies. Regulators then discriminated against American firms, using tactics like holding up permits. He lamented that few companies were willing to bring a formal trade complaints for fear of angering Beijing.

He ruefully suggested that China's ambition was not to trade with the US but to raid it and that "win-win" in China meant that China wins twice.

The Secretary of State suggested that the only way to truly change communist China is to act not on the basis of what Chinese leaders say, but how they behave. Accordingly while the US had dealt with the Soviet Union on the basis of “trust but verify” with China one must "distrust and verify". The US in its dealings with China was now insisting on reciprocity, transparency and accountability and every nation would be well advised to do likewise. He recognised that China posed a "new complex" challenge as unlike the erstwhile Soviet Union which was sealed off from the free world it was " already within our borders". In these circumstances, he felt that the China challenge could not be dealt with alone but through the collective power of several countries. In this context, he speculated that it was perhaps time for “a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies"

The aforesaid speeches are seminal and deserve to be commended for their unity of purpose and the clarity of the message conveyed by them which had the following main elements:

  1. Admission that the US policies, initiated by a Republican President and pursued for the last several decades, of opening up to China and helping it become prosperous, had failed abjectly as far from being grateful and becoming more benign China had morphed into a Frankenstein.
  2. Detailed expose of the existential threat that China posed to the USA, the extent to which it had hollowed out the US economy, and the manner in which it was subverting US nationals, companies, the academia, media etc. This will go a long way in sensitising the American people to the gravity of the Chinese threat and pave the way for a major course correction in US policy vis a vis China which will cut across all Administrations.
  3. Assertion that the old policies of accommodation of China should be abandoned and henceforth dealings with it should be on the basis of reciprocity.
  4. Addressing the China challenge is complex. It cannot be done alone by a single country and is, perhaps, best be done through a grouping of likeminded countries.

India would do well to consider following the US model of exposing China's hegemonic proclivities, its disregard of all established norms of conduct and its brazen use of illegal means for advancing its agenda, coupled with the adoption of a much firmer policy towards China based on imposing costs upon it on account of any adventurism against us. This is all the more necessary as our weak kneed policy vis a vis China predates that of the US by over three decades and as we have suffered infinitely more from Chinese perfidy than has the USA. Indeed, in these circumstances, a white paper on our China relationship would be in order describing all the concessions we have made over the decades, the repeated back stabbing we have faced, the continuous Chinese creep along the LAC since the 1990's, the instigation of our neighbours against us by China, its hollowing out of our economy, and the extent to which it has subverted our companies, media, academe etc. This will help in bolstering the national resolve to confront China which will be a long haul and is essential to prepare the nation to face the hardships that will inevitably go with it. It will also place on notice elements that constitute the China lobby in India. The aforesaid white paper should be followed up by the enunciation of a comprehensive approach to dealing effectively with the China menace in the short, medium and long term.

It would also be desirable for India to explore with likeminded countries like the US as to how in practical terms the Chinese challenge can be addressed most efficaciously. There is much merit in the suggestion tentatively mooted by the US Secretary of State that this is best done collectively. Quad offers an ideal forum for taking this idea further and working out the practical parameters of such cooperation to deal with China.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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