Another area of concern is covert Chinese activism overseas. ‘Their objectives know no limit,’ says Fisher. ‘If China has targeted a country for its resources and has decided to sustain a noisome regime to defend those interests, it will give that regime the means to, as it will also collect a comprehensive data base to help that regime to avoid threats.’
This strategy—secretly propping up friendly dictators—was illustrated recently when China was apparently caught quietly arming Gaddafi after the civil war in Libya began. In violation of international sanctions, China was reportedly offering weapons to the Libyan dictator even in the final weeks of battle, documents leaked in early September indicate.
The move—a carefully calculated risk, to be sure—clearly required intimate knowledge of potential US and NATO reactions. ‘This kind of very targeted power projection will become the order of the day when China builds its power projection Navy and Air Force, due to come online by the early 2020s,’ Fisher warns.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
And even though Gaddafi’s regime may have crumbled, he notes, China has a growing international network of support, including the regimes ruling North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Other key players in the Chinese intelligence community’s expanding network of friends are global criminal organizations and freelance cyber warriors—or ‘sub-contractors’ and ‘pirates,’ as Fisher refers to them.
Links with organized crime and so-called ‘Patriotic hackers’ allow the regime some degree of plausible deniability in covert operations and cyber attacks. But between backing socialist strongmen, penetrating critical infrastructure, and sabotaging computer systems, China’s aggressive foreign intelligence operations are increasingly arousing suspicion worldwide.
According to Juneau-Katsuya, the overall designs aren’t all that complex. ‘If you want to understand the strategy that Chinese intelligence and the Chinese government are using, you’ve got to refer yourself to the game of Go,’ he says, noting that it is popular among China’s military top brass.
The ancient game is fairly simple: The object is to encircle one’s opponent and take control of the most territory. ‘That’s exactly the strategy they’re using,’ Juneau-Katsuya says, citing the regime’s increasingly active presence around the world—particularly in Africa—as an example of the plan in action.
Guarding against the Threat
There’s some disagreement among experts about whether governments are doing enough to protect themselves and their people from the threat of Chinese espionage. But overwhelmingly, insiders say nations from Canada and Australia to European states and India need to do more—much more. Small countries in the vicinity of China are probably among the most vulnerable.
Regardless, what is certain, according to analysts, is that most companies and institutions aren’t keeping up with the Chinese regime’s rapidly evolving espionage capabilities. And the PRC is taking full advantage of the opportunities.
‘They understand very well that the Western world is sleeping at the switch when it comes to all this, and the majority of people are not paying attention to the security of their systems,’ says Juneau-Katsuya. ‘That is the weakest link.’
FBI spokesman Bill Carter says that after terrorism, counterintelligence ‘is the number two priority in the FBI, and significant resources are devoted to our counterespionage activities.’ The exact figures are classified, he adds. ‘You don’t like to tell the opposition what your capabilities are.’
The US Department of Justice didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency. But reports do suggest that at least some governments are getting serious about counterintelligence and the threat of Chinese espionage.
Many more governments, for example, have recently started to take action against state-owned Chinese firms attempting to buy up sensitive or strategic companies. And growing concerns about using Chinese technology—especially in the realm of telecommunications—have been expressed by officials around the world.
By raising public awareness of their plight, the fears of exiled dissidents are being taken more seriously, too. The victims of the Communist regime’s foreign persecution, however, still say much more needs to be done.
Strategies to deal with the threat proposed by analysts interviewed by The Diplomat varied widely, from restricting the number of Chinese nationals allowed into other countries to developing new multilateral institutions to address the problem. More resources dedicated to counterintelligence, tougher punishments for convicted spies, better encryption systems, and more private sector involvement were also all mentioned.
But one point in particular was repeated over and over again. By far the most crucial element in the battle, analysts say, is greater awareness.
Alex Newman is a freelance writer and correspondent for The New American magazine