The San Francisco ChronicleFar from symbolizing a military intelligence apparatus out of control, U.S. spying on China is essential to track developments in that unsettled part of the world, a diverse array of independent national security analysts agrees.
April 8, 2001
Spying on China Is Essential to U.S. Security, Analysts Agreeby Keay Davidson
While some question the Bush administration's handling of the spy-plane fiasco, they insist that spying operations provide vital information to U.S. diplomats who must negotiate the historically and ethnically charged minefield of Asian politics.
"The U.S. intelligence community would be falling down on the job if they avoided paying attention to China," said national security analyst John Pike, often a vigorous critic of the U.S. intelligence and defense establishments. Until recently he was spokesman on space and security issues for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., and now is an independent consultant.
"The U.S. continues to have a significant security interest in Asia, and a significant military presence, so the U.S. has an interest in understanding the Asian security environment, which includes understanding China's military," Pike said.
Bay Area physicist Sidney Drell, a veteran adviser to presidents on intelligence issues, said that the more information diplomats have about other countries, the more intelligently they can negotiate occasional crises. That includes, he added, everything from publicly available foreign newspapers to secret foreign documents.
"We get information every which way we can. It's the general principle of a university: The more you know, the wiser you act," said Drell, who recently received the National Distinguished Service Medal from CIA Director George Tenet. Drell is an emeritus professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Palo Alto.
The issue for the United States, some analysts stress, isn't so much what China is now.
Rather, the question is: What will China become? For now, no one knows whether Chinese power will continue to grow and eventually dominate all of Asia, or -- fractured by economic growing pains and internal dissent -- will eventually collapse.
"You hear a lot of alarmist talk about (China)," said Phil Saunders, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
"But the reality is that on a global basis, China is nowhere near being a competitor with the United States. . . . They're in a much less powerful position, and their interests are primarily in Asia rather than global.
Saunders added, "What's a more interesting question is: As China's economy and military modernizes, will it be in a position to challenge the U.S. role in East Asia, which is important to the U.S. economically? And as China becomes more powerful, will it threaten Asian security?"
Saunders cited several regional security issues involving China: its territorial claims in the South China Sea, its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and its problems with Taiwan, which could destabilize the region.
Hence, Saunders said, the need for spies.
"Oftentimes, you spy on both your friends and your enemies," Saunders said. "It's possible for today's friends to become tomorrow's enemies and vice versa. So it's a matter of prudence to be aware of what other countries are up to."
Despite the furor over the spy flights, "this kind of 'passive' intelligence collection -- both by us and by them -- can actually serve the interests of both countries insofar as it helps to reduce unfounded suspicion and promote stability," said Steve Aftergood, another FAS analyst.
In any case, Saunders noted, "both the United States and China have a long history of spying on each other. (While) it's not clear that Wen Ho Lee was guilty of spying for China, as was alleged, nevertheless it is true that China maintains an active intelligence presence in the United States. . . . A number of Chinese spies have been caught" since the 1980s.
A recent case involved Peter Lee, who passed "a great deal of technical information on to China, including some research on how to detect submarines and some information on how to use lasers to conduct nuclear fusion," Saunders noted. "Lee reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and spent a year in a halfway house."
Said Aftergood: "The intelligence community is plagued by inertia just like any other entrenched bureaucracy. But there are some genuine intelligence concerns connected with China. These include the potential for military conflict over Taiwan, the role of Chinese aid in emerging nuclear programs like that of Pakistan, Chinese arms sales and similar issues.
"More fundamentally, there is a question about the long-term future of the U.S.-China relationship as China actualizes its enormous economic potential and becomes an ever stronger regional power," Aftergood continued. "There are some basic incompatibilities between our two countries, and these are a source of tension.
"I would add: Of all forms of intelligence collection, aerial surveillance from international airspace is among the most benign and nonintrusive. It is quite different from bribing officials or literally stealing secrets."
Copyright 2001 The Chronicle Publishing Company