‘To the Chinese, gaining economic advantage is part of national security.’

by Chris Zappone

“To the Chinese, gaining economic advantage is part of national security.”

This is a quote from Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institute, on why the US arguments against China’s economic online espionage fall flat. It’s contained in a New York Times article with the latest Snowden revelation.

Singer’s observation about China speaks volumes about how the geopolitical situation may soon evolve between China and the US. The US still expects some kind of Cold War understanding about rules of engagement between countries, in which political spying is somehow demarcated from economic spying. But that period has ended.

What comes to mind is another quote, this one from University of California, Riverside Chinese literature professor Perry Link discussing China’s political culture in regards to withholding visas for American journalists:

If there is a silver lining in the predicament of the New York Times and Bloomberg, it is that the West may finally be getting a direct sense of the political culture at the top in China. It is a shrewd and inveterately competitive culture, drawn far less from Karl Marx than from China’s classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which outsmarting the opponent by whatever means is the most admired of achievements. When U.S. policymakers use terms like “strategic partner” and “responsible stakeholder” for the people at the top in Beijing, they are out of their depth.

And Link is right, then arguably there is a sort of post-Cold War laziness among US policymakers on their China thinking. If not laziness, it’s a lack of imagination. Many politicians, diplomats, thinkers expect the norms around advancing a nation’s political system and its economy that have been in place during the Cold War to continue on into the period of China’s growth. But China is a very different animal.

From where I sit, two things stand out immediately.

1) China’s military still operates with a considerable amount of autonomy from China’s civilian leaders, despite the flood of stories about Xi assuming control of the military.

2) China’s military works in conjunction with China’s business in an arrangement that serves the country. Whether the military rewards business leaders with trade secrets, or its under orders to do so, is not clear. But what is clear is that, as Singer says, that the People’s Republic of China as a country doesn’t distinguish between economic and political spying.

Western politicians must understand this second point and take steps to grow and secure their economies in this environment. Because China isn’t going away. And the new model they represent, which is actually a very old model, is going to shape global politics.