The Chinese People's Liberation Army has been systematically stealing technology worth billions of dollars from countless American companies in many industries. Is this news?
Not to American intelligence agencies. Not even to anyone else who's been paying attention. But publicly available evidence is new and fascinatingly detailed, as the recent report from the private forensics firm Mandiant showed. The hidden story here is that the private sector can perform first-class intelligence collection and analysis that a few years ago could have been done only by a nation-state. Meanwhile, our own government is keeping mum -- tangled in World War II-era rules about classified information and fearful of disrupting relations with a nation that owns huge amounts of our national debt.
If we're waiting until China decides to "play fair," we're in for a long wait. China won't play fair with us any more than Western powers played fair with China when we carved it up into concessions in the 19th century and imposed Western law on Chinese territory. This is realpolitik. China's intelligence services will continue to steal Western technology unless the price of that behavior becomes too high.
We're in a strategic trap that's partly economic and partly in our heads. We tend to think strategic relationships are governed by an on/off toggle switch between peace and war. When things go wrong, this crude dichotomy condemns us to think we have only two choices: Call in the lawyers, or call in an air strike. In fact, international relations are messy and fluid. We sometimes have serious disputes with allies, and we sometimes find common ground with adversaries. Permanent alliances have begun to seem less than permanent. When adversaries get aggressive with one another, there is a wide gray space between war and peace. The Cold War with the Soviet Union took place largely in that gray space, and it was often nasty.
But we are not in a cold war with China and don't wish to be. During the Cold War, we did not trade with the Soviet bloc, and travel across the Iron Curtain was virtually nil. When the Soviet Union went bankrupt, we cheered. In contrast, U.S.-China trade is vast, travel is free, and China bankrolls our appalling national debt. If China went bankrupt, we'd have a depression, not a celebration. War talk of any kind, even cold war talk, is therefore rash. We are dealing with a very rough competitor -- but not an enemy.
It's always easier to see one's own vulnerabilities than the other side's. China cannot bring the United States to its knees without doing worse to itself. A depression in the United States would cause crippling hardship, but economic collapse in China would not only create widespread hardship, it would threaten the future of the Chinese Communist Party. If we are over a barrel, so are they. But China understands our appetite for its markets, so it's willing to take risks with the relationship. So far we haven't made its risks seem very risky.