China’s intelligence agencies are conducting a major covert influence campaign aimed at derailing the Obama administration’s military shift to Asia, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
According to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Air Sea Battle Concept—a Pentagon program to develop new weapons and capabilities to counter China’s military buildup—was a tightly guarded secret.
In November, the Pentagon briefed reporters on the creation of the joint Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps office called the Air Sea Battle Office; this new office is developing new military strike capabilities that range from the use of special operations forces deep inside China, to long-range precision attacks with missiles and aircraft.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that the latest defense budget request protects—and in some cases increases—investment in power projection in Asia.
“Since last summer, Air Sea Battle has become the highest Chinese intelligence priority,” said one official familiar with U.S. counterintelligence programs. “To protect the program, our counterintelligence efforts are crucial.”
Pivot to Asia targeted
As part of the shift to Asia, dubbed the “pivot,” the Pentagon will send 2,500 Marines to a base in northern Australia and move several new Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore. It is also bolstering alliances in the region, specifically with Japan, which is working closely with the U.S. military on missile defenses.
The Chinese intelligence and influence targeting of the Air Sea Battle Concept is being led by Beijing’s military intelligence service, known as the Second Department of the People’s Liberation Army, or 2PLA. In 2010, that service began an aggressive spying program to learn about the Air Sea Battle program after its existence was publicly disclosed by a think tank.
The 2PLA sent spies to the United States and spoke to academics who travel frequently to China in an effort to find out about the new Air Sea Battle Concept.
Major General Yang Hui, the head of Chinese military intelligence, is believed by U.S. officials to be heading up the spying and influence operation. Yang secretly visited the Pentagon in October 2009 and during meetings with officials complained that the Pentagon was trying to undermine U.S.-China relations by disclosing information to the press about China's military activities.
Two other intelligence-related units were also linked to the anti-Pentagon spying program.
One is the PLA’s General Political Department, a unit under the Central Military Commission, the most powerful organ of government in China.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission identified the General Political Department in a draft report last year as having an "intelligence bureau" that worked with a group of retired U.S. and Chinese generals and admirals called the Sanya Initiative. The initiative lobbied Congress and the Pentagon to soften its annual report to Congress on China's military buildup.
The report also said the Chinese sponsor of Sanya “is linked to the Intelligence Bureau of the Liaison Department of the PLA’s General Political Department … [with additional] ties to both the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
The Ministry of State Security is China’s civilian intelligence agency. The Liaison Department of the PLA is in charge of “conducting propaganda and psychological operations directed at other militaries.”
A civilian Communist Party organ called the United Front Work Department, a quasi-intelligence group under the Party Central Committee, is also engaged in intelligence-gathering operations.
U.S. counterintelligence officials learned about the Chinese spying and influence program because the Pentagon had launched a special program that was designed to protect Air Sea Battle. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the FBI conducted the joint anti-Chinese intelligence program.
Pentagon and FBI counterintelligence spokesmen declined to comment on the Chinese program and U.S. efforts to counter it.
Document lists influence themes
One key to understanding the Chinese program was a document obtained by U.S. intelligence listing at least five themes being used by the Chinese in the effort to stop Air Sea Battle programs.
According to officials familiar with the influence themes, China has been telling its agents and others who can influence U.S. policy that Air Sea Battle is provocative and will undermine the official U.S. policy of building trust and closer relations between the two countries.
Additionally, Chinese influence organs—state-controlled news media, government think tanks, their officials, and others—have hinted that Air Sea Battle would never be successful in conducting attacks deep inside China against its weapons systems and infrastructure because China’s nuclear forces would be used in retaliation.
China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal with new missiles, including two long-range road-mobile ICBMs, a new submarine-launched ballistic missile and a new land-attack cruise missile. All these would be used to attack the United States if it were to engage in a war against China in the future, according to this propaganda theme.
A third influence theme is that U.S. allies in Asia and elsewhere will oppose all U.S. efforts to conduct military operations against China and would prevent U.S. forces from attacking China by limiting the use of U.S. military bases in Asia.
The U.S. military currently has forces in Japan and South Korea and will send Marines to Australia. It is also negotiating returning some military forces to the Philippines, where both air and naval forces were based until the 1980s.
More counterspying needed
Some officials said they are concerned that too little is being done to prevent China from influencing the U.S. government regarding the new battle concept and that U.S. intelligence gathering in China is too limited by policy officials worried about upsetting diplomatic and economic relations.
U.S. military spying will need to be increased as part of Air Sea Battle to better identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities in both China’s government and military that could be exploited in a future conflict.
Counterintelligence officials said they are eager to step up efforts against Chinese intelligence and the anti-Air Sea Battle effort. Little is publicly said about Chinese spying, but the current administration is reluctant to engage in large-scale counterintelligence operations against China.
Battle concept surprised China
Former State Department intelligence analyst John Tkacik said disclosures about Air Sea Battle three years ago caught the Chinese military by surprise.
“Almost immediately [they] tasked all their intelligence assets, from overt military attaches to informal academic ‘Track-2’ scholars, to find out what it was all about,” Tkacik told the Washington Free Beacon.
Tkacik said U.S. secrecy frustrated the Chinese who were unable to learn details.
“When it came into the open last November, the Chinese immediately saw it as a doctrine designed to counterbalance their own expansion in the Western Pacific,” he said. “After all, the idea is for the United States to supply air and sea power projection to augment the ground forces of allied and friendly countries in the region that might be threatened by, who else?”
As a result, the Chinese are now engaged in a full-court press to discredit Air Sea Battle as somehow “aimed at containing China,” Tkacik said.
The success of the influence pressure can be seen in the “poor quality of debate within the U.S. government on Air Sea Battle,” Tkacik said.
“None of it really addresses China’s current military rise, but instead focuses on how to appease China’s indignation,” he said.
Richard Fisher, a China affairs specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the major influence and propaganda campaign by China against Air Sea Battle was expected.
“Those who go out of their way to say the Air Sea Battle is not ‘China-focused’ may think they are being politically correct, but they are also helping China to undermine its political support in Washington,” Fisher said.
“China can be expected to undertake many types of influence operations, ranging from giving its favor to mainstream think tanks and journalists who talk down or oppose the Air Sea Battle Concept, to urging its friends in other Asian capitals to oppose this U.S. concept, to its being added to the regular list of complaints against U.S. policy that every American visitor will have to listen to ad nauseam,” he added.