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Deterring Chinese Military Ambitions Before It’s Too Late


From 2010 to 2012, at least 30—and probably many more—Chinese nationals working as spies for the Central Intelligence Agency in China were systematically identified and either jailed or slaughtered thanks to the CIA’s gross underestimation of Chinese intelligence cyber capabilities. Jerry Lee, a former CIA operations officer turned Chinese double agent (where have we heard this before?), as the FBI belatedly discovered, was walking around with a bunch of Chinese CIA agents’ real names written down in a notebook.

As national security journalist Bill Gertz verifies in his latest book Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy, this information led to the network rollup by a task force comprised of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, the People’s Liberation Army’s cyber-warfare force then known as 3PLA, and other PLA intelligence entities.

The MSS was able to completely destroy the CIA’s networks in China through a combination of Lee’s agent details and the communications system breach. . . . At least three of the estimated thirty recruited Chinese agents were killed, including one who was summarily executed with a bullet to the head in front of his colleagues in the courtyard of a Chinese government building in a blunt warning to others not to work for American intelligence.

Lee was convicted of spying for China in April 2019. Lee’s treason, combined with the compromised CIA agent communications system, led to the wipeout of CIA human intelligence gathering in China for years, probably decades, to come. For decades prior, the U.S. establishment had a problem in even conceiving of the threat.

Joseph Nye. . . at Harvard University. . . led the academic community and their cousins in the US policy and intelligence communities, who put forth the noxious argument called the self-fulfilling prophecy toward China. Call out China, he argued, for its quasi-totalitarian communist system, its support for rogue states, its human rights abuses, and its use of lies and deception that are the main feature of that system, and the world will create a China threat.

Unfortunately for the disciples of Nye, the Chinese Communist Party, and the country enslaved to it, is not a friend to democracy, free markets, or the rule of law, and never will be. It is a belligerent mafia, riven by infighting, and controlled by a murderous don in People’s Republic President Xi Jinping.

Gertz draws on example after example taken from the past 15 years both from his journalistic experience and from heavily substantiated reporting by others to catalog a comprehensive history of Chinese aggression and perfidy that hammers this point home. China views the United States as its enemy.

The PLA vs. The People

Gertz argues that the CCP is clearly still in command of the country. Its philosophy has not mutated into a hoped-for benign strain of socialism, and it retains the goal of global domination and the ultimate destruction of its rivals in the West, most particularly the United States of America. That doesn’t mean the Chinese people necessarily go along.

For a delightful and often appalling account of how ordinary Chinese people interact with the regime, check out Federalist senior contributor Helen Raleigh’s memoir of growing up in China, Confucius Never Said. Indoctrination starts early. Raleigh recounts this harrowing fact of young life in the PRC:

Chinese elementary schools required their students to become members of the Young Pioneers group by the time they graduated. . . . What was going on in the school was a miniature reflection of what was going on in the society in large. For example, your teacher would check what class categories your parents were. The privileged few youngsters who became YPC members in first grade were normally sons and daughters of the red classes such as Communist Party members or factory workers. Some teachers would accept bribes from parents in exchange for helping their children become Pioneers first, and some teachers made sure their own children were included in the first batch.

The People’s Liberation Army is not an army of the Chinese people, Gertz reminds us in Deceiving the Sky, but an army owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Chinese Communist Party. Xi’s purges of PLA flag and staff officers deemed politically untrustworthy is a reminder of just who is in charge of this warmaking machine.

The recent blockbuster movie Operation Red Sea directed by John Woo disciple and Hong Kong-based filmmaker Dante Lam inadvertently makes this case. The film, which depicts PLA Navy Marines rescuing Chinese hostages in Yemen, is masterful, with beautifully brutal action sequences, impeccable acting from the principals, and great storytelling chops. But the film was mostly funded by the PLA and used what seem like a bottomless supply of PLA and PLAN military assets, from state-of-the-art NODs to PLAN aircraft carriers.

Tacked on to the end of the movie is an amazing wide shot of a PLAN battle group sailing through the South China Sea with an ominous voice-over announcer declaring that these waters belong to China and all others must stay away. Perhaps Lam will come to regret his Leni-Riefenstahl-like contribution should PLA tanks come rolling through Victoria Park in Hong Kong in the future.

Asymmetric Warfare

In 1993, the Chinese military establishment was awed by the U.S. military’s performance in Desert Storm and decided it was in a bad spot if it ever wanted to beat the United States in a war. An important internal report argued that the PLA needed to develop asymmetrical weapons and methods of fighting to achieve its ultimate goal, defeat of the United States and global hegemony for the Communist Party.

The asymmetrical attack is based on the old Chinese idea of the Assassin’s Mace, says Gertz—that is, a weapon that takes advantages of specific vulnerabilities when one is up against a powerful enemy. The biggest Assassin’s Mace China possesses, argues Gertz, is its antisatellite capabilities. China announced its ASAT ambitions in 2007, when the PLA blew up one of its own satellites in space with a missile. This left a dangerous debris ring in orbit around the Earth that’s still causing problems.

Since then, the PLA Space Corps (unlike the United States, China takes a military space force deadly seriously) has been refining its ASAT capabilities with not only antisatellite missiles, but robotic attack arms on its satellites, and powerful lasers capable of disabling U.S. and other satellites (and blinding U.S. soldiers on Earth, which it probably did in 2018 to a C-130 crewman flying a surveillance mission out of Camp Lemonnier at the Horn of Africa). China no longer depends on the U.S. GPS system, but has developed its own global positioning network of more than 20 satellites called the Beidou system.

All of this activity exploits a deep vulnerability of the U.S. military: It has no dedicated antisatellite weapons. The best the United States can do is send up a modified ballistic missile to take out a low-orbit satellite, which it has done exactly once in its history. Where are the U.S. ASAT missiles? The last one was produced in 1988. You can visit it at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. INERT is stenciled in big letters on the rocket tube—which may as well be an epitaph for the entire U.S. ASAT program.

Another asymmetric Assassin’s Mace weapon is cyber warfare. Gertz gives stunning details on Chinese hacking capabilities, and the huge trove of U.S. military and military contractor information they have stolen from the United States. The PLA Xian Y-20 cargo plane is a copy almost down to the nuts and bolts of the U.S. heavy transport C-17, and was based on plans the PLA cyber division 3PLA sucked from Boeing’s computers.

Gertz reports that 3PLA has also stolen highly detailed information on the F-35, America’s preeminent stealth fighter jet. Not only does this represent tens of billions of dollars stolen from U.S. taxpayers and decades of labor taken from American scientists and engineers, the F-35 fleet is the crown jewels of the U.S. defense capability. China has now cloned the F-35 as the Chinese J-20.

Perhaps the greatest effect of PRC aggression and failed U.S. China policy is the fact that China has stolen plans for at least six U.S. nuclear weapons, says Gertz. These include the W-88 warhead used on the sub-launched Trident missile. Any attack by these weapons might result in millions of American deaths.

Deceiving the Sky details a great many other Chinese technological advances based on intellectual property theft and the one case of Chinese creative initiative—the quantum encryption technology that is becoming commonplace in CCP and PLA command and control networks that prevent the National Security Agency from eavesdropping.

Cultural and Financial Warfare

What’s most revelatory in Deceiving the Sky is Gertz’s account of China’s ongoing cultural and financial warfare against the United States. From Clinton to Bush to Obama, the reigning diplomatic philosophy when dealing with China has been that unfettered trade and engagement with the Chinese government is a good thing. Gertz argues that the Chinese communists have played the U.S. political establishment like a fiddle. He documents that, for many years, it was career suicide for U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic professionals to call out Chinese deceit and aggressive behavior in general.

Gertz gives as an example the defenestration of Navy Capt. James Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, who was forced to retire from the Navy over a trumped-up security violation. “His ouster was widely viewed as political retaliation for the stark comments about the Chinese military that had angered pro-China officials in the Navy and the Obama administration,” Gertz says.

Many, if not most, of the 300,000 Chinese foreign exchange students in the United States are under the thumb of the Ministry of State Security, says Gertz, and are expected to not only report back information the regime might find useful but, in some cases, to actively seek it out. Even more worrying, Gertz claims, the U.S. financial system is wide open for Chinese exploitation.

Chinese investors rely heavily on what appears to be a legal loophole in US regulations known as Regulation S. The rule is based on the concept of international comity. It allows Chinese companies to issue US dollar-denominated bonds on overseas exchanges that can subsequently be held in fixed-income portfolios of American investors through several mechanisms.

This put the IRAs and pension funds of ordinary Americans at risk for Chinese manipulation. Plus, Western financial markets are, in effect, financing the rapid build-up of the PLA.

In March 2018, China Shipbuilding announced plans to build the PLA Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to bolster two other conventionally powered carriers . . . soon after the announcement, China Shipbuilding issued a $1 billion bond in the German bond market in Frankfurt. The bond had a maturity date and an amount that coincided with the expected completion date of the nuclear-powered carrier. . . . some of the bond proceeds were provided by institutional US investors. That, in turn, means that average American’s investment portfolio is being used to fund Beijing’s military buildup.

The idea that China wants new weapons for defense is pure fantasy. No nation on planet Earth is looking to attack China, least of all the United States. As Gertz documents, the CCP and PLA are militantly paranoid organizations where aggressive manipulation is rewarded and a system of “party princelings”—descendants of earlier party members—jockey for position. A deep hatred for the United States and the West permeates this establishment and finds justification in a century of virulent anti-American CCP propaganda.

The People’s Republic of China is an aggressor state. It is looking to swallow Hong Kong, annex Taiwan, claim Japan’s Senkaku Islands (suspected to harbor oil resources; China, as big as it is, has almost no oil or natural gas production), and claim suzerainty of the entire South China Sea via its system of artificial atoll bases. Its ultimate objective, Gertz claims, is not the well-being of the Chinese people, but the expansion of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP sees this as its destiny.

A Doctrine of Deterrence

Gertz’s argument is powerful, but at times attenuated by a reportorial mushiness in the narrative that is likely unavoidable in a work that is so heavily fact-based. Gertz also includes a couple of interesting science fiction scenarios for how the start of World War III (or IV, depending on how you look at it) might play out.

Gertz’s allegiance is as clear as his facts are impossible to discount. He offers several prescriptions for remedying the crisis. The first is to take counterintelligence seriously by establishing an agency separate from FBI, CIA, and the DOD’s various entities to handle it.

He further argues that the U.S. military needs to develop doctrinal war plans and let the PLA know basically what they entail. They should include a devastating counterattack on the top leadership of both the CCP and the PLA in their Beijing burrows such as the CCP’s Zhongnanhai headquarters and the Western Hills underground command center. The purpose would be to assure the PLA and CCP that they will be obliterated if they start a war with the United States.

A doctrine of deterrence would also bear fruits in current areas of tension such as the PLA’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea, and the CCP’s fever dream of one day conquering Taiwan. It might even give Hong Kong a fighting chance at freedom over the long haul.

The United States may be a nation in turmoil, but it is hardly a nation in decline. A response similar to what Gertz outlines will eventually be put in place, since U.S. national survival demands it. And if the U.S. security establishment listens to Gertz sooner rather than later, much American gold and blood may be spared as the nation copes with an enemy that so obviously and completely wishes it dead, dead, dead.