Former US national security advisers warned lawmakers on Wednesday that American investors, businesses and graduate schools must do more to protect the US against the Chinese government’s pervasive influence operations.
“The United States and other free societies have belatedly woken up to this contest, and there‘s a welcomed spirit of bipartisanship that’s emerged on Capitol Hill,” said Matt Pottinger, who served as deputy national security adviser under president Donald Trump.
“But even with this new consensus, we’ve failed to adequately appreciate one of the most threatening elements of Chinese strategy – and that’s the way that it seeks to influence and coerce Americans, including political, business and scientific leaders, in the service of Beijing’s ambitions.”
The rare public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee featured two hours of discussions between senators and former officials about just how much influence the Chinese government has managed to gain over certain sectors of US society.
They issued warnings about Beijing-backed social media campaigns seeking to undermine trust in American Covid-19 vaccines; US index funds that have been pouring money into Chinese corporations without proper assessment of the risks; and the intense political pressures from the Chinese government forced onto many Chinese students studying in the United States.
Even the hearing itself – titled “Beijing’s Long Arm: Threats to US National Security” – had come under the pressure of the Communist Party’s influence, said Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and chairman of the committee. He told the panel that a number of potential witnesses had declined to participate in a public hearing “for fear of retribution to themselves or their families”.
“The US private sector and academia have become the geopolitical battle space for China,” said William Evanina, Trump’s top counter-intelligence official.
“The reality that China is presenting is inconvenient to those that are benefiting in the short term,” added Anna Puglisi, a former US national counter-intelligence officer for East Asia.
“This includes companies looking for short-term profits, academics that benefit personally from funding and cheap labour in their laboratories and former government officials who cash in as lobbyists for China’s state-owned and state-supported companies,” said Puglisi, now senior fellow at the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.
The hearing was the latest sign not only of the unusual bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill on China policy, but also rare sense of continuity on the issue from the Trump era to the administration of US President Joe Biden.
In separate remarks earlier in the day, Pottinger said it was “appropriate” that Biden was now looking at the US-China relationship in “ideological terms”.
US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China, on July 26. Photo: US Department of State via APUS-China relations have continued to spiral downward more than six months into the Biden administration, over a long list of grievances ranging from suspected human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region to a crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong to sabre rattling in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing says Washington is interfering in China’s domestic affairs.
When deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman travelled to China last week, she was told by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that Beijing reserved the right to use “any means necessary” to quell any provocations around independence for Taiwan, a self-ruled island.
Sherman said in an interview with NPR after the trip that she was “quite clear about the need for China to respect the rules-based international order from which they have greatly benefited and been able to develop their country”.
“This is a very complex relationship that involves competition, cooperation and times where it’s adversarial … we’re going to challenge what China does,” she said. “They certainly are taking aggressive action against Taiwan, which they insist should be reunified with China, along Chinese characteristics, so we are at a very tough place with the Chinese.”
The potential for conflict goes beyond the Taiwan Strait, with President Joe Biden’s administration pursuing a strategy of closer ties with military allies and greater coordination among the “Quad” countries of Japan, India and Australia to counter Beijing’s expansive maritime claims in the Indo-Pacific region.
Underscoring that stance, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin used the occasion of his trip to Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries last week to reiterate Washington’s long-standing position that Beijing’s claims in the resource-rich waters had no basis under international law, saying the assertions “tread on the sovereignty of the states in the region”.