Feb 19, 2020 10:00 AM

Opinion: Sino-U.S. Conflict Enters Dangerous New Territory — Intelligence

Wang Yi, China's foreign minister (left), U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Wang Yi, China's foreign minister (left), U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Unfortunately, the United States and China engaged in a new round of bitter exchanges during the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. High-profile figures from the two sides rhetorically collided in the Bavarian capital, in a reality show version of great power rivalry. Hundreds of participants including more than 30 heads of states and governments witnessed the clash. Observers would soon realize that it showed the conflict between the nations has entered a dangerous new territory — intelligence war.

The tit-for-tat exchanges mainly happened among three American officials, including U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chinese officials Fu Ying, chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

The Americans were laser-focused on Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and its bid for a share of the global 5G market. In two days, in a concerted approach, the Americans launched a bipartisan attack on Huawei as a vehicle for Chinese intelligence agencies. The Chinese side hit back hard, accusing the Americans of lying and hypocrisy, as the U.S. has the world’s greatest spying capabilities.

On Friday, Pelosi was the first to open fire and repeated the same rhetoric during her following visit to Europe. She said Huawei is “a People’s Liberation Army initiative using reversed engineering from Western technology” and using it would equate to “having the Chinese state police, right in your pocket.”

In a discussion session after Pelosi’s speech, Fu Ying directly challenged her, suggesting America is not confident in the stability of its political system. “Do you really think the democratic system is so fragile that it could be threatened by a single high-tech company?”

On Saturday, Pompeo put it more bluntly: “Huawei and other Chinese state-backed tech companies are Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence.” Esper also echoed Pompeo, saying “Huawei and 5G are today’s poster child for this nefarious activity [of China’s tech theft].”

About 90 minutes later, on the same stage, Wang Yi responded to Pompeo and Esper’s attack. “All these accusations against China are lies. They are not based on facts. But if we replace the subject of the lie from China to America, maybe those lies become facts.”

On Monday in Beijing, when asked about recent exposé by the Washington Post about U.S. intelligence’s decades-long use of a Swiss company as a front entity to spy on other countries, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang launched into a tirade of alleged U.S. intelligence collecting activities, including controlling over 3 million Chinese computers and implanting Trojan software into more than 3,600 Chinese websites on an annual basis.

Geng said the U.S. is worthy of the name “empire of hackers.” “It is a tawdry trick that while doing so, it keeps playing victim of cyberattack, like a thief crying ‘stop thief.’ Its hypocrisy on the issue of cyber security could not be clearer. It has no honor and credibility to speak of in front of other countries.”

Certainly, these words of war do not come from nowhere. As the novel coronavirus outbreak has been occupying the world’s attention, the CIA released its new National Counterintelligence Strategy 2020-2022 on Thursday, a day ahead of Pelosi’s attack on Huawei in Munich.

The strategy marks the first of its kind under the Trump administration since the version laid out by the Obama administration in 2016. In a press release, the new strategy identified China as a “threat actor targeting the U.S.” And it is aimed at protecting the U.S. critical infrastructure and countering foreign intelligence cyber and technical operations.

More specifically, 5G technology has been singled out as a potential vehicle for foreign actors to spy on the U.S. “The development of next generation technologies such as the Internet of Things, 5G technology, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence will present new opportunities for foreign adversaries to collect intelligence and conduct cyber operations against the United States,” the strategy said.

It is particularly alarming that the strategy called for a “whole-of-society” approach that “integrates the assistance of the private sector, an informed public, as well as foreign allies” and encouraged counterintelligence and security procedures to become “part of everyday American business practices.” It is worthy to note that the “whole-of-society” approach is already an elevation from the “whole-of-government” approach the White House has adopted in its trade war with China.

By connecting more dots, the U.S.’ intelligence war with China has probably been going on at least for two years or so. According to a speech delivered by the U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Feb. 6 — two weeks ahead of Pelosi, Pompeo and Esper’s trip to the Munich Security Conference — the Justice Department in 2018 launched a special operation called the “China Initiative” to confront “China’s malign behaviors and protect U.S. technology.”

It is hard to predict how the intelligence war between the U.S. and China, particularly, the U.S.’ “whole-of-society” approach, will play out. But it’s certain that U.S.’ concerted counterintelligence actions against China will only intensify. Within the month, the Justice Department already announced at least three such China-related cases, including new indictments against Chinese military personnel on Feb. 10, and Huawei and its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on Thursday.

Lu Zhenhua is a senior editor at Caixin Global. He had worked at the South China Morning Post and the 21st Century Business Herald, reporting from Washington, Hong Kong and Brussels.

Contact author Lu Zhenhua (

You've accessed an article available only to subscribers
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code