In the rebalancing of Sino-American relations that’s underway, the usual roles are reversed: China’s normally deft President Xi Jinping appears to have badly overreached in seeking advantage. And President Trump, who often seems tone-deaf on foreign policy, is riding a bipartisan consensus that it’s time to push back against Beijing.
The two nations will probably make a trade deal soon, patching together a working relationship that has been frayed by about a year of tariffs and economic brinkmanship. Experts predict an agreement that will boost U.S. exports to China, improve market access for American firms and reduce the power of Chinese state-owned enterprises — and offer some modest new legal protections for U.S. companies whose commercial secrets have been plundered by Beijing for a half-century.
But as Xi jockeyed for position against the United States, many U.S. experts argue that he misplayed his hand. After decades of what was known as China’s “hide and bide” strategy of cautious cooperation, the Chinese leader moved to directly challenge U.S. primacy in technology. This eventually triggered a sharp, bipartisan U.S. response, which Trump has harvested.
“In an incredibly divided Washington, one of the only areas of agreement is that China policy needs to be less accommodating and more resolute toward Beijing,” says Kurt Campbell, who oversaw East Asia and Pacific policy during the Obama administration. He credits Trump for recognizing Xi’s weakness: “China is not yet ready to take on the U.S., and Trump recognizes this.”
The Chinese-American confrontation is partly a spy story, but it’s very different from the cloak-and-dagger escapades of the Cold War: China operates its espionage net partly through universities, research institutes and benign-sounding recruitment plans. Until recently, U.S. companies often didn’t realize that their pockets had been picked until it was too late.
China’s overaggressive strategy dates back to the 2008 financial crisis, which Beijing saw as “a strategic window of opportunity for China to become a global superpower,” according to Greg Levesque, managing director of Pointe Bello consultants. Using internal Chinese documents, he recently explained to a congressional commission how China targeted “key core technologies” in the West.
An innovative early feature was the “Thousand Talents Plan,” established by Beijing in 2008. The program sought to recruit “global experts,” in particular those with Chinese ancestry, to join what the plan’s website called “National Key Scientific and Technological Projects.” By 2014, says the website, more than 4,180 overseas experts had been recruited.
The strategy was formalized in a 2017 speech by Xi. “Made in China 2025” is a roadmap for dominating key technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biopharmaceuticals. Xi mobilized China’s nominally private companies through an approach known as “Military-Civil Fusion.”
The system for recruiting overseas talent was explained by an article posted April 16, 2018, by a Communist Party organization at Wuhan University People’s Hospital, describing how cadres there created an “Overseas Talent Recruitment Station” at a gathering in Dallas of Chinese-American medical researchers.
A Wuhan party official told the Dallas group that he “hoped that more overseas talent would return to the motherland and develop” high-tech projects. (The article was shared with me by a U.S. security-consulting firm.)
Bill Priestap, then the FBI’s head of counterintelligence, described the “Thousand Talents Program” in congressional testimony this past December as an example of “non-traditional espionage.” He said the goal was “luring both Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts alike to bring their knowledge and experience to China, even if that means stealing proprietary information.”
The problem for the Chinese is that this “brain gain” effort was so aggressive that it backfired. The New York Times reported this week that the FBI has recommended denying visas to some Chinese academics suspected of having ties to Chinese intelligence. The Energy Department recently banned anyone involved in China’s talent-recruiting programs from working in its laboratories.
There’s blowback in the trade negotiations, too. Lorand Laskai of the Council on Foreign Relations noted last year that the Trump administration mentioned “Made in China 2025” more than 100 times in its Section 301 trade complaint against Beijing. A newly wary China has stopped referring to the Thousand Talents Plan or mentioning award recipients, according to reports by Bloomberg News and Nature, respectively.
The Trump administration still doesn’t have a consistent, comprehensive strategy for dealing with China. Among other things, it lacks a coherent regional economic framework, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump scuttled. But now is the right time to confront China’s bad behavior, before Beijing gets any stronger, and while Trump has the political wind at his back.