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The U.S.-China relationship is bad — and getting worse

More stories are trickling out about Chinese influence campaigns that target business and state leaders, or seek to influence students or universities. If we’re shocked, we shouldn’t be.

China's President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump
China's President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017.
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The relationship between the United States and China appears to be heading from bad to worse. President Trump recently accused China of meddling in the midterm elections. While we await actual evidence, Vice President Mike Pence reinforced the message last week in critique of what he said was a broad campaign to influence U.S. politics and policy.

In many ways, this is both predictable and self-serving. The Trump administration might regard China imposing tariffs on agricultural commodities and other products from politically competitive states as meddling, but what do you expect when you start a trade war? The European Union reacted the same way.

More stories are trickling out about Chinese influence campaigns that target business and state leaders, or seek to influence students or universities. If we’re shocked, we shouldn’t be. Many countries engage in influence campaigns. China’s bid is disciplined and comprehensive – about what you’d expect from the Chinese Communist Party. But its effort appears to lack the sharp edge of Russia’s campaign in 2016.

So when a somber Pence declares that “what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country,” and informs us that it’s proof Trump’s confrontational stance toward China is working, it sounds like so much pious claptrap — another example of refusing to acknowledge the mayhem Moscow conjured, and an effort to blame someone else for problems that are at least partly Washington’s own doing.

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Still, Pence may be onto something – just not in the way he cast the argument in a major speech on Thursday. A couple of news stories that landed the same day as the vice president’s address illustrate the point.

In one case, U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch authorities released detailed accusations of Russian cyberattacks against officials investigating events that cast Russia in a bad light. In the other, the Bloomberg news agency unloaded an exhaustive investigation indicating that Chinese intelligence officials embedded a spy device in Chinese-made computer equipment.

If these stories are correct, here is one way to look at them: While this certainly isn’t all Russia’s up to, in these cases it appeared to be playing defense with limited resources. China looks like it’s playing offense with vast capabilities.

Dutch investigators caught the Russians tapping into the headquarters of an international organization that monitors chemical weapons, and said they were heading next to Bern, Switzerland, location of a laboratory that analyzes chemical agents. Both organizations were investigating the poisoning of former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal in Britain with the nerve agent Novichok, an attack Britain has blamed on Russian military intelligence.

Cyberattacks targeted anti-doping agencies and sports organizations in the United States, Canada and Brazil, apparently to muddy the waters after a major Russian doping scandal. Officials also cited Russian intelligence activity in Malaysia, which has been investigating the shooting down of a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people. An international investigation has concluded that Russia supplied the missile that downed it.

Officials have tracked some of the same people and computer equipment involved in several cyberattacks. The United States charged seven Russians last week, three of whom had already been indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller in 2016 election hacking. The Dutch said they seized a computer that had been used in Brazil, Switzerland and Malaysia, where it was used to target the investigation into the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine.

It makes you wonder: Do the Russians have such a small bench and limited resources that they need to use the same people and equipment on multiple continents? By most accounts, Russia didn’t spend a great deal to influence the 2016 U.S. election, either. What it did was exploit American psychology. Even then, the effort was aimed mostly at dragging America down.

If Bloomberg is right, the Chinese operation was audacious. Amazon and Apple denied Bloomberg’s report that their systems were compromised, and the Department of Homeland Security says it sees no reason to doubt them. Bloomberg stands by its story that Chinese intelligence accomplished a feat one hacker said was as rare as “witnessing a unicorn jump over a rainbow.”

Most hacking is done with software. China pressured manufacturing subcontractors to insert a chip about the size of a grain of rice into motherboards that would “create a stealth doorway into any network that included the altered machines,” Bloomberg said. It’s a riskier move with a far bigger potential payoff.

Among customers of the company that ultimately sold the equipment were the U.S. Defense Department, which used them in data centers and Navy ships. The CIA used them in drone operations, Bloomberg reported. The FBI and the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment, leaving it unclear whether government agencies suffered a hardware hack.

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Bloomberg cited as sources six current and former senior U.S. national security officials. It’s possible, of course, that the story was leaked now to pressure China. That doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Regardless of whether the story turns out exactly as Bloomberg reported it, tech experts say the implications for trade and the global supply chain are enormous. Raising doubts about the security of Chinese-made computer equipment threatens a huge market and China’s goal of dominating tech industries. There’s a lot going on, none of it positive for the U.S.-China relationship.