US, China take bolder steps to uncover each other’s secrets as ‘silent war’ expands and intensifies

US, China take bolder steps to uncover each other’s secrets as ‘silent war’ expands and intensifies

NEW DELHI: The US and China are locked in an ever-expanding and highly secretive spy-versus-spy contest as each vies to maintain a military and information edge.
The shooting down of a Chinese surveillance balloon over US territory in February this year brought into focus the intense war happening behind the scenes between the two global powers.
The balloon crisis, a small part of a much larger Chinese espionage effort, reflected a brazen new aggressiveness by Beijing in gathering intelligence on the US as well as Washington’s growing capabilities to collect its own information on China, said a report by the New York Times.
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Shortly after the Chinese balloon drifted in US airspace, American spy agencies learnt that President Xi Jinping was livid and chastised his military generals. Though not opposed to authorising risky spying operations, US agencies say Xi was kept in the dark about the balloon.
These details about what Xi knew and what his army kept from him showcase Washington’s renewed ability to partially break past China’s black box on information.
In recent years, the US has launched an aggressive espionage effort against China — a critical part of President Joe Biden’s strategy to constrain the military and technological rise of Beijing, in line with his thinking that the country poses the greatest long-term challenge to American power.
Beijing has also been following an extremely aggressive espionage track as its ambitions trample on the sovereignty of several of its neighbouring countries in the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan.
The main efforts on both sides are aimed at answering the two most difficult questions: What are the intentions of leaders in the rival nation, and what military and technological capabilities do they command?, said the NYT article.
US focus on Xi
As per US officials, American spy agencies like the CIA have been focusing on Xi and his intentions regarding Taiwan, while local agencies like the FBI have been working overtime to unearth Chinese spy rings operating in US soil.
As per the NYT report, US agents have identified a dozen penetrations by Chinese citizens of military bases on American soil in the last 12 months.The CIA and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency have set up new centers focused on spying on China. US officials have honed their capabilities to intercept electronic communications, including using spy planes off China’s coast.
In response to Chinese spy rings operating on US soil, federal agencies have quietly opened or expanded their in-house spy catching operations.
The FBI has thousands of open Chinese intelligence investigations, and every one of its 56 field offices has active cases. All of those field offices now have counterintelligence and cyber task forces largely focused on the threat from Chinese intelligence.
Under William J Burns, the CIA. director since 2021, the agency has hired more China experts, increased spending on China-related efforts and created a new mission center on China. And while American officials refuse to discuss details of the agency’s network of informants, Burns said publicly in July that it had made progress on rebuilding a “strong human intelligence capability.”
China’s bigger spy network
US officials say, China’s efforts reach across every facet of national security, diplomacy and advanced commercial technology in the United States and partner nations.
“The fact is that compared to China, we are vastly outnumbered on the ground, but it’s on us to defend the American people here at home,” FBI chief Christopher A Wray told the NYT. “I view this as the challenge of our generation.”

China’s vastly improved satellite reconnaissance and its cyberintrusions are its most important means of collecting intelligence, US officials say. The fleet of spy balloons, though far less sophisticated, has allowed China to exploit the unregulated zone of “near space”. And the US government is warning allies that China’s electronic surveillance capabilities could expand if the world’s nations use technology from Chinese communications companies.
American officials are also more concerned than ever at Chinese agencies’ efforts to gather intelligence through personal contacts. They say China’s main intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, aims to place agents or recruit assets across the US government, as well as in technology companies and the defense industry.
Chinese agents use social media sites — LinkedIn in particular — to lure potential recruits. Any time an American takes a publicly disclosed intelligence job, they can expect a barrage of outreach from Chinese citizens on social media, according to current and former officials.
On July 1, China enacted a sweeping expansion of a counterespionage law. And in August, the Ministry of State Security announced that “all members of society” should help fight foreign spying, and offered rewards for anyone providing information.
Global networks
The rival governments have also established new listening posts and secret intelligence-sharing agreements with other governments.
American and Chinese agents have intensified their operations against each other in pivotal cities, from Brussels to Abu Dhabi to Singapore, with each side looking to influence foreign officials and recruit well-placed assets.
AI next battleground
Both countries are also racing to develop their artificial intelligence technology.
The US government sees its lead in AI as a way to help offset China’s strength in numbers. Chinese officials hope the technology will help them counter American military power, including by pinpointing US submarines and establishing domination of space, US officials told NYT.

China even has AI software that can recognise faces and detect the gait of an American spy, meaning traditional disguises are not enough to avoid detection, according to a former intelligence official.
American operatives now must spend days rather than hours taking routes to spot any tailing Chinese agents before meeting a source or exchanging messages, former intelligence officials said.
Taiwan flashpoint
No issue in US-China relations has loomed larger than Taiwan. It is the flashpoint likeliest to lead to war, analysts say.
Xi has said China must take control of Taiwan, a de facto independent island, and has ordered his military to be capable of doing so by 2027. But so far, the US and its allies do not appear to have concrete intelligence on whether Xi would be willing to order an invasion.
And China obsesses over the flip side of the question. Biden has declared four times that the US military will defend Taiwan should China try to seize the island.
But whether Biden really means that — and whether American leaders plan to permanently keep Taiwan out of China’s reach — are believed to be focal points of some of China’s intelligence efforts.

In the absence of real intelligence on intentions, American and Chinese officials are focused on gathering information on each other’s military capabilities. The US, for instance, has stepped up its aerial surveillance of Chinese military bases.
Meanwhile, Chinese intelligence agents have penetrated many parts of the Taiwanese government over the decades, former US intelligence officials say.
Chinese agents are now trying to learn more about the Biden administration’s efforts to outfit Taiwan with certain weapons systems and provide secret training for Taiwanese troops. Chinese agents also seek more details on the growing military cooperation between the US and Asian allies.

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