Is China as evil as the US describes in its global campaign to contain the former? The US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in his speech in July 2020 portrayed the strategic competition with China as an ideological struggle between freedom and tyranny. Conversely, China’s media has described the US’ activities as evidence of its “sinister intentions” to maintain hegemony at the cost of China’s rise. This article compares some activities that both states undertake in the cyberspace and intelligence domains to pursue global predominance.
Growing Animus between Giants
Since June 2020, the US has escalated its efforts to confront China in these domains. For example, the US has unveiled its Clean Network initiative to intensify efforts in removing Chinese products and companies from the US’ information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem. The US believes this initiative would impede China’s efforts to conduct attacks, spread disinformation and gather intelligence through the cyberspace. The US also closed China’s consulate in Houston and designated Confucius Institutes on American soil as foreign missions. The use of diplomatic and cultural tools aims to impede China’s intelligence efforts to conduct espionage and influence operations on American soil.
These developments signal the end of the US’ strategic patience towards what it perceives as China’s malign activities that threaten American national interests. They also lay bare the US’ fears that China is deviating from Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of “hide brightness, nourish obscurity”. This deviation underscores China’s strength as a near-peer competitor who could challenge the US’ foreign policy goals, which include encouraging other states to become democracies fashioned in its image. Some activities that China undertake to grow its power are not unlike those the US had taken to defend its national interests.
Clash of Cyber Powers
Consider the cyberspace in the context of cyber-attacks and espionage. As a vast nation with the world’s largest number of internet users and vibrant digital economy, it was unsurprising when Xi Jinping announced in 2014 that China should become a cyber-power to protect its interests. This announcement had raised concerns in the US as both states were already carrying out cyber operations on each other.
Recently, the US linked the Taidoor malware – active since 2008 – to hackers working for China’s government. The US also charged two Chinese hackers for conducting a cyber-espionage campaign for financial gain and the benefit of China’s intelligence agencies. The timing of these actions suggests that naming and shaming could be part of the US’ broader strategy to legitimise the decoupling of the digital economy and impose more sanctions against China’s companies Huawei, ByteDance and Tencent.
However, China also claimed that it had been the target of the US’ cyber operations. China’s cybersecurity company Qihoo 360 reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had hacked into China’s agencies, institutions and industries since 2008. The Snowden leaks revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had infiltrated Huawei’s servers in 2010. As the US believes that China’s rise poses a military threat, the NSA purportedly sought to determine China’s intentions by assessing Huawei’s plans. Although the US could argue that the intent of its cyber operations is strictly for national security purposes and not for cybercrime or corporate theft, its rivals could come to regard cyber operations as an acceptable tool of statecraft during peacetime.
Furthermore, the US is probably the first great power to use cyberweapons to cause significant damage in protecting its geopolitical interests and those of its allies. For example, the US reportedly began working with Israel’s Unit 8200 in 2007 to create the Stuxnet malware to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme. A nuclear Iran could upset the balance of power in the Middle East to the disadvantage of US’ allies Israel and Saudi Arabia. But Stuxnet also opened the Pandora’s Box, revealing to the US’ rivals the strategic and tactical gains a state could achieve through the deployment of cyberweapons.
Spy War Heats Up
Next, consider the intelligence activities between China and the US. The US assessed that it faces a “large and growing threat” from China’s intelligence agencies. The threat is not new as the US believes that China was involved in numerous economic espionage cases since the 1980s. Conversely, China believes that the US has been using Hong Kong as a base to conduct intelligence activities on the mainland since the Cold War. Intelligence activities, however, are not irregular but an age-old tool of statecraft to pre-empt what a state deems as national security challenges. Even friendly states spy on each other as geopolitical uncertainties could turn a friend today into a rival tomorrow.
But the animus between China and the US demonstrates how intelligence activities could become a significant problem when the practices of one state go beyond what is typically acceptable. The scope and scale of China’s intelligence activities on the US appears to surpass the practices of other states significantly. This issue is one of the reasons why bilateral relations deteriorated, and the US labelled China as a strategic competitor instead of a strategic partner. The US’ closing of China’s consulate in Houston and targeting of researchers who participate in the Thousand Talents Programme could be a response to the curtailment of Hong Kong as a spy base and China’s dismantling of CIA’s spy network on the mainland.
In sum, it is problematic to deem China as “evil” as the US also undertake similar activities to defend its national interests. What is straightforward is that both states perceive each other as “evil”. The US sees China’s behaviour as fundamentally incompatible with the democratic values that define American power and influence. China may interpret the US’ call to “change the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party” as a hostile policy of regime change.
Muhammad Faizal is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). He completed his Master of Science in Strategic Studies at RSIS, specialising in terrorism studies. Prior to joining RSIS, Faizal served with the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs where he was a Deputy Director