People walk by displays in May featuring the U.S. and Chinese flags in a special trade zone in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province. (AP/AP)
Columnist

The Trump administration, like Washington overall, is split between those who want to confront the Chinese Communist Party’s pervasive effort to steal its way to global economic dominance and those who want to overlook Beijing’s economic aggression in search of smoother relations and accommodation on trade. But our economic and national security are not bargaining chips.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is headed back to Beijing next week to resume trade talks with Chinese leaders. In the meantime, he took care of some business in Washington: He decided to exonerate Google for working with China on artificial intelligence.

“The president and I did diligence on this issue, we’re not aware of any areas where Google is working with the Chinese government in any way that raises concerns,” Mnuchin said Wednesday, adding that he had met with President Trump and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai.

On July 16, Trump said in a Cabinet meeting that his administration would “take a look” at Google’s work in China and suggested that his attorney general might investigate. Eight days later, Mnuchin announced that he had done the investigation instead of the attorney general and that he discovered everything was just fine.

Obviously, there’s no way Mnuchin could have seriously examined the issue in eight days. His statement must be seen as a casual dismissal of a serious national security concern. Mnuchin can go to Beijing having done a U.S. tech company and the Chinese government a huge favor. But the problem still remains.

Trump was amplifying the concerns of tech billionaire and Trump ally Peter Thiel, who accused Google of “seemingly treasonous” acts for working with China on artificial intelligence and asked whether Google had been “infiltrated” by Chinese intelligence. Thiel revealed his political bias by saying on Fox News that most of Google’s employees are “probably . . . ideologically super left-wing, sort of woke, and think that China is better than the U.S.”

But National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow revealed his ignorance when trying to counter Thiel on Fox Business. Kudlow said he thinks Google is “working for America, for our military, not for China.” In fact, Google pulled out of an artificial intelligence project with the U.S. intelligence community while secretly developing a censored search engine for use inside China. (A company representative said last week that it had been terminated).

Kudlow, like Mnuchin, has been playing down the threat of Chinese economic aggression in part to advocate for U.S. businesses and in part to fight back against China hawks inside the administration who want to highlight national security concerns in the trade negotiations. Meanwhile, national security officials not involved in the trade talks are sounding the alarm.

“I would say that there is no country that poses a more severe counterintelligence threat to this country right now than China,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified this week. “China is fighting a generational fight here.”

The FBI has more than 1,000 open investigations into economic espionage around the country, almost all leading back to China, he said, and Beijing is using nontraditional collectors, including scientists, businessmen and academics. The FBI has been trying to educate, warn and work with companies, universities and local officials about the threat, an effort some see as targeting Chinese and Chinese Americans. But Wray said that’s not the case.

“This is not about the Chinese people as a whole, certainly not about Chinese Americans in this country,” he said. It’s about “a country that is, in a variety of ways, through the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party, using not just government . . . but private-sector entities, nontraditional collectors, etc., to steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.”

The Google case is instructive because the company says it is not working with the Chinese “military,” but won’t comment on whether it works with the Chinese government. National security officials know that’s a distinction without a difference. It’s clear that any research done with a Chinese company can be appropriated and abused by the Chinese government for military purposes.

Over the past few weeks, a chorus of voices has emerged to argue against the Trump administration’s turn to a more confrontational policy toward Beijing. Some warn about a “red scare” reshaping Washington, while others say they’re scared by the new China consensus in Washington, which they argue is overblown.

The critics are right to warn of possible overreach and to encourage the Trump administration to devise a better diplomatic strategy. But it’s misleading to blame the United States for finally confronting China’s rampant economic espionage, unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft and use of its “private” companies to advance its strategic agenda.

The fact is that the Chinese Communist Party is perpetrating an effort to rob the United States of its economic and technological advantages. U.S. companies and institutions must stop helping it. It’s a national security issue that Mnuchin, Kudlow and Google must acknowledge now, or any trade deal we strike with Beijing won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.

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