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Enter the dragon

China made the headlines in espionage news today. The Times of London reported that two French intelligence officers in the equivalent of MI6 have been charged with treason for passing information to China.  Yet Beijing has a knack for staying below the fold. As David Wise in the New York Times noted, "with all the focus on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the damage done by China’s vigorous and continuing espionage against the United States has taken a back seat."

Lost against the background of the Snowden defection, Putin's invasion of the Ukraine and Syria and the beating to death of a Russian media czar in Washington, D.C. is the memory of one of the major fiascos of the Obama administration: the rollup of the CIA's agent network in China.  The New York Times reported in May 2017 that "the Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward."

Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.

But the biggest threat China now poses may be not traditional espionage but political subversion. At the April 2018  hearing by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, co-chair Senator James Talent said "the activities of the United Front Work Department, which coordinates the CCP's overseas influence operations, deserve more scrutiny--and a careful response."

Australia and New Zealand, members of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing network, have seen a sharp rise in political donations and media investment from United Front Work Department-affiliated entities, and even individuals affiliated with the United Front Work Department and People's Liberation Army holding office. Beijing also incentivizes political figures in Australia and New Zealand to parrot its line on issues it deems important...

It is important for the United States to consider that China may be testing methods of interference to probe for weaknesses in democracies in order to use the same techniques against Western countries in the future. The United States, its allies, and its partners should understand China’s goals and recognize China’s determination to achieve these goals at any cost. Affected countries should consider carefully whether China’s vision of the Asia Pacific is in their interests.

China's influence tactics, such the acquisition of a German robotics firm, rarely occasion the interest of the police because they are legal. The European defense has been to erect a wall of regulation, welcoming Chinese investments in Europe only to the extent that they are in line with “EU policies and legislation”; stipulating that the the Belt and Road Initiative adhere to EU market rules and requirements/standards; pointedly emphasizing market access opportunities and addressing Chinese overcapacity.