Trans-Pacific View

Chinese Influence, American Interests

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View

Chinese Influence, American Interests

Insights from Larry Diamond.

Chinese Influence, American Interests
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Larry Diamond – Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University is the 173rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” Diamond was co-editor of “Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance,” a report by the Hoover Institution and Asia Society issued in November 2018.

Describe the impetus behind the report “Chinese Influence & American Interests.”

The impetus for the report was the growing evidence that China is projecting (as Russia has been doing, but in different ways) a new form of “sharp power” that seeks to penetrate, sway, and in some respects undermine the integrity of democracies around the world, including the United States. Rather than seeking to persuade and attract other societies through transparent engagement, as democratic powers do, sharp power, to quote former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, uses methods that are “covert, coercive, or corrupting.”

We counsel in the report against alarm, or any kind of ethnocentric or xenophobic reaction to China, Chinese who are studying, living, or doing business in the U.S., or to Chinese-Americans. But the relationship between the U.S. and China has been shifting as the Chinese Communist Party-state increasingly seeks aggressive advantage. The old assumptions about engagement and peaceful evolution are no longer valid, and a new approach is needed.

What is the trajectory of Chinese influence in U.S. technology innovation?

There has been a rising pattern of audacious Chinese misappropriation of American technological innovations in areas such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, super computing, cloud computing, robotics, drone technology, navigation technology, and gene editing. These areas of “dual-use technology” have immense implications for commercial benefit but potential military applications as well. China has unfairly appropriated technology in these areas through such means as hacking, espionage, outright theft, forced transfers of proprietary commercial technology as the price of doing business in China, and scholarly research collaborations and trainings with stealth agendas.

We recognize the immense benefit that can come from cooperation between Chinese and American scientists and engineers. But we want transparency of motives, respect for intellectual property rights, and a level playing field, not a one-way flow of technological capture for unfair commercial and military advantage.

Assess the level of awareness among policymakers and companies regarding the ubiquity of Chinese influence operations. 

There has been a rapid increase in awareness among policymakers as more and more experience and analysis has come to light. Our report has made a contribution, but so have other influential reports preceding ours. The excellent report last year from the Defense Innovation Unit, “China’s Technology Transfer Strategy,” helped move the Congress to broaden the mandate of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) to review proposed foreign investments in high technology and other sensitive sectors of the U.S. economy. What has changed most with U.S. corporations is not so much awareness of the problem but political concern and support from the U.S. Congress and Executive. U.S. corporations sense a new resolve on the part of the administration and the Congress to defend them and demand a fairer and more mutually respectful relationship between the countries.

To what extent are Chinese influence mechanisms a threat to U.S. democracy?   

Chinese pressure, penetration, and compromise of democratic institutions has been much greater in Australia and New Zealand, because they are closer geographically and from a legal standpoint were less prepared. But with recent legislation, Australia has been strengthening its democratic resilience in the face of Chinese influence activities.

At the moment, the threat to U.S. democracy is more limited, and more potential. For now, I worry most about the eclipse of freedom and pluralism for Chinese citizens who are living and studying in the U.S., and for Chinese-Americans who need to or prefer to get their news and information from Chinese language sources. We express in the report concern about Chinese government pressure on and monitoring of Chinese citizens in the United States, and about the decline of independence and pluralism in the U.S. Chinese-language media as they increasingly come under the sway of Beijing and reflect the Chinese Communist Party line.

Explain the report’s implications in the context of escalating tensions between the U.S. and China. 

We do not want a new “cold war” between China and the United States, not to mention a hot war. Neither do we welcome or support a generalized trade war with China. The report was crafted by a group of scholars and policy practitioners who feel strong bonds of affection and admiration for the Chinese nation and society. Most of our Working Group members have spent their careers studying or working in and on China. Our report warns against sliding into gratuitous confrontation or ethnic stereotyping of the motives of Chinese or Chinese-Americans. What we seek is “constructive vigilance” that is mindful of the geopolitical ambitions and tactics of the Chinese Communist Party-state — which we need to distinguish from the Chinese people. We don’t seek tension. We want a new, fairer, more mature and reciprocal relationship between what are now, clearly, the world’s two superpowers.