The US spy agencies have put all their hands on deck to gather intelligence on China’s military and foreign relations — by any means possible. The fiasco resulting from intelligence assessments leaked by US airman Jack Teixeira has revealed how Washington spies on Beijing.
The leaked documents were produced by the US Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, J2 for short, which acts as the central node of intelligence gathering for military operations. J2 gathers specialised insights related to military activities of foreign adversaries and operations where the US may be directly or indirectly involved.
Teixeira was employed by the 102nd Intelligence Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. The documents he leaked show that the US is gathering information through signals intelligence intercepts of countries that China interacts with. Signals intelligence is the information gathered by intercepting encrypted communication between individuals or through technical information collected from sensors such as satellites or listening posts.
One such example of the intelligence gathered is Jordan reassuring China about continuing the economic relationship after Beijing complained that Huawei wasn’t involved in Jordan’s 5G network.
The US managed to intercept Russian intelligence, which claims that China’s Central Military Commission wanted to disguise lethal aid as civilian items, according to reporting on the leaked documents by The Washington Post.
The leaks have revealed that Washington has heavily infiltrated the Russian national security agencies, giving the Joe Biden administration deep insights into Beijing’s dealings with the Kremlin.
A more tantalising leak was the intelligence about PLA’s DF-27 hypersonic glide vehicle, which flew for 12 minutes across 1,300 miles on 25 February.
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China’s response is law change
The stage is now set for an intense spying showdown with Beijing as President Xi Jinping tries to close the loopholes that might allow Washington to spy.
Beijing has announced a significant revision to the counterespionage law of 2014. The revised law builds on the ‘whole of society’ approach to counterespionage, a concept introduced in 2021.
“Counterespionage efforts are to uphold the centralized and unified leadership of the Communist Party, adhere to the holistic view of national security,” says Article 2 of the revised draft of the counterespionage law.
But the most transformational changes will be made to cyber espionage. China’s latest revision of the anti-espionage law has sought to take an expansive view of cyberespionage activities.
The persistent warfare in the cyber domain has completely transformed the way threat vectors are monitored. Beijing is trying to address this new reality by overhauling the cyberespionage law.
Beijing now defines ‘cyberattacks, intrusion, interference, control, sabotage, and other activities against state organs’ as an act of espionage.
“The revised draft further improves the provisions on cyber espionage by clarifying the act of cyber espionage to include activities by spy organizations and their agents who implement or instruct, or fund others to implement, including domestic, foreign institutions, organizations, and individuals to carry out cyberattacks, intrusion, interference, control, sabotage and other activities against China’s state organs or units involved in classified or critical information infrastructure,” said Jiangsu Procuratorate Network on the context of defining cyberespionage under the revised law.
Chinese officials have informed the public about sweeping changes coming to the espionage law, which has implications for every citizen. Beijing is particularly aware of the US using third-country actors to spy against the PLA and its national security agencies.
“The current situation against espionage is extremely grave, as traditional and non-traditional security threats are intertwined, and various types of spies and intelligence activities are more complicated,” said Zang Tiewei, spokesman for the Legislative Affairs Commission with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
“Amending it is to strengthen the fight against espionage in this new situation, and aims to provide a strong legislative guarantee in the battle of infiltration, subversion and secret stealing,” added Zang Tiewei.
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More trouble for foreigners
Besides the revisions related to the cybersecurity law, Beijing will make it difficult for any foreign national caught in activities ‘endangering national security’ to leave the Chinese mainland.
When a foreign national is found to be “conducting activities that endanger the national security of the PRC”, the national security agencies can notify immigration authorities to bar their entry, the draft of the revised law says.
In the past three years, Beijing has arbitrarily detained nationals of Canada, Australia, Japan, and the US on various charges, including espionage. Historically, the most vulnerable of these nationals were foreign nationals of Chinese descent or dual citizens holding Chinese and foreign passports. But the new revision will make it easy for Beijing to detain any foreign nationals in the Chinese mainland on espionage charges.
Between 2010 and 2012, China managed to identify and prosecute 20 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) informants because of former CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee. The affair was the most significant setback for the US human intelligence gathering efforts in China.
Things haven’t improved for the US since 2012. According to NBC News, the US continues to struggle to gather intelligence on China through human sources.
As Beijing adopts a blanket approach to describing cyberattacks as an act of espionage – either directly or through proxies – the US-China espionage contest is about to engulf more countries around the world.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)