Countering China’s Expanding Global Access

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As part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Secretary of Defense, in concert with the Secretary of State, to “assess the foreign military and non-military activities of the People’s Republic of China that could affect the regional and global national security and defense interests of the United States.” Last month, the Pentagon responded by releasing their “Assessment on U.S. Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access.” The document deserves serious scrutiny, as it involves the fate of the free world.

As the report details, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a clear global vision to “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor as the preeminent power.” These goals may sound too abstract to be instructive, but the report highlights many concrete ways in which the CCP is building and wielding its military and non-military power. Three things, in particular, stand out.

First, recent Chinese military reforms “reflect the abandonment of its historically land-centric mentality” and growing correspondent emphasis on naval power. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is shifting its focus from “offshore waters defense” to a mix of both near defense and “open seas power projection,” reflecting its growing ambitions. For example, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in August 2017, a project which started with the expansion of a port in Doraleh in 2013 and continues with construction of new facilities that “could be capable of berthing at least four ships as early as mid-2019. This base, along with regular naval vessel visit along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, extend the reach of China’s armed forces, reflecting China’s growing influence.” As the PLAN’s power projection capability grows, America’s deteriorates. Consider that the U.S. Navy still does not have a plan to grow the fleet to 355 ships quickly enough to maintain U.S. primacy in the Indo-Pacific region.

Second, the report highlights the CCP’s expanding “Digital Silk Road.” The digital silk road aims is a signature initiative of Chairman Xi Jinping that aims to build “information and communications technology infrastructure, particularly in developing countries, and to [promote] cybersecurity and global internet governance reform.” These investments are not altruistic. They facilitate technology transfers that rob foreign firms of intellectual property, promote Chinese technical standards, advantage Chinese firms, and enable domestic Chinese censorship and suppression. China’s state-owned or state-affiliated firms like Huawei and ZTE also raise serious counterintelligence concerns, which is why I have introduced bipartisan legislation to hold CCP telecom firms accountable for any malign activities.

Finally, the report shows the CCP’s efforts to manipulate foreign media in an effort to “tell the China story well” and “spread China’s voice.” The CCP has expanded investments in state-run media in recent years, launching 40 new foreign bureaus and doubling the number of overseas foreign correspondents of its Xinhua news agency. The Pentagon here references a 2015 Reuters report exposing the CCP’s use of subsidies to mask state control over 33 radio stations across 14 countries. This includes the U.S., where radio stations blasting CCP propaganda did not register as agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). CCP efforts to influence public perceptions are not limited to media it directly controls. As the report notes, the CCP “methodically cultivates relationships with private media owners and journalists to encourage them to depict China in a positive light.” In light of these concerns, I recently sent a  bipartisan letter to the Associated Press to inquire about the AP’s deepening relationship with Xinhua. Going forward, as DOJ ordered last fall, Xinhua must register as a foreign agent, and Congress must continue aggressive oversight to ensure that Chinese propaganda is clearly delineated as such.

Going forward, while this report usefully highlights how the CCP is expanding global access, we need a better understanding of why they are doing it. Policymakers condemning Chinese aggression spend little time analyzing the core motivations underlying CCP behavior. No effort to counter China can be successful without such an understanding. As John Garnaut has persuasively argued, ideology, especially Stalinism, as interpreted by Mao, has never been more important to explaining CCP behavior. This ideology leads to a “You-Die, I-Live” approach that is evident in increasingly assertive policies described in the report. For those of us who would like to see the Free World prevail in the face of revisionist powers, this report is, if nothing else, a useful reminder that there is much work yet to be done.

Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Marine Veteran representing Wisconsin's 8th District. He currently serves on the House Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees.

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