China is famously hungry for resources and knowledge of all kinds – but military high technology whets the country’s billion-man appetite more than anything else.
New weapon systems, though, are notoriously hard to obtain: they’re expensive to buy and even more expensive, never mind slow, to develop yourself. In China’s case, a US and European arms embargo dating back to the Tiananmen Square massacre further limits the options, forcing the Chinese to be creative about where their new military technology comes from. The upshot is that they buy it, they build it and, whenever they can, they steal it.
For the US, which is desperate to maintain its military edge over China, the theft of defence technology by Chinese agents is becoming a prime national security concern. Last week, a former US aerospace engineer was convicted of selling the Chinese sensitive information about the US’s B-2 stealth bomber, one of the prize stallions of American defence. This wasn’t the first such case, and it won’t be the last.
“It has been said that the Chinese employ the ‘thousand grains of sand’ technique when it comes to espionage,” explains Alex Neill, head of the Asia Programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London. This approach involves “co-opting the Chinese community across the wider world”, Neill says, rather than dispatching trained operatives with particular objectives. In this way, the Chinese are able to gather small nuggets of valuable information here and there – and in the end “the aggregate is very effective”, Neill suggests.
Overseas Chinese are hardly Beijing’s only source of secret information. The convicted B-2 engineer was an American citizen of Indian origin; other culprits have been American to the bone. For Washington, it paints a worrying picture of sieve-like security. “China’s generals like to boast that they can get what they need even with the embargoes in place,” Neill says.
Russia does sell arms to China but this hasn’t offered much protection from Beijing’s technological cupidity. The Chinese air force in particular has become infamous for buying Russian aircraft, taking them to bits to figure out how they work and then mass-producing them on the cheap. The J-15, a new “Chinese-built” jet that will fly off China’s aircraft carriers when they enter service in the next couple of years, is widely rumoured to be the latest Russian rip-off.
China’s own defence industry has made huge strides over the last two decades, but it still seriously lags behind the West in some key areas, notably aircraft engine development. So long as these deficiencies remain, espionage is here to stay as an essential plank of Beijing’s military modernisation strategy. But there’s a grain of comfort in this for a jittery Pentagon: technology theft can only ever help you to chase your rivals, not overtake them.