Washington will be all a-twitter (and on Twitter), at least briefly, next week when President Obama meets his Chinese counterpart in California. Like most U.S.-China summits, this one is almost assured to produce nothing beyond the usual palaver about “partnership,” etc., etc. Seasoned D.C. hands are aghast at any suggestion that maybe we should think twice about talking to the Chinese so regularly, despite the fact that we seem to get almost nothing accomplished. We simply must keep lines of communication open, we rubes are assured, in order to continue building the deep reservoirs of trust that make for an increasingly mature relationship.
However, the Chinese are playing us for fools, and have been doing so for decades. In what is probably the greatest campaign of military espionage since the Soviets stole the atomic bomb in the 1940s, the Chinese military (and government and business, for all we can tell) is robbing the U.S. of terabytes of information about, and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of, our most senitive weapons systems. As I wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, the list of “compromised” (that’s Washington-speak for stolen) systems include our F-22 and F-35 fighters, the new Littoral Combat Ship, Global Hawk drone, and much of our ballistic-missile-defense platforms. In addition, the Chinese have pilfered our basic research and development information, often the cutting edge in science and technology, on satellite communications, directed energy, electronic warfare, and the like. If you’re on blood-pressure medicine, you can read the list here. Lest no one miss the point, the U.S. taxpayer — you and I — are underwriting the modernization of the Chinese military.
The Chinese may be the best argument going for a realist interpretation of the world, whereby states act solely in their own interests, and cooperate only when there is a bottom-line payoff for doing so. Stealing us blind while welcoming our officials, businessmen, and scholars to Beijing for spirit-building exercises is a perfectly rational, even brilliant, strategy. One can only hope that the U.S. government is as good at stealing Chinese secrets, whatever those might be. On the other hand, given that the Obama administration seemed completely taken off-guard by the emergence of China’s fifth-generation stealth-fighter prototypes, as the Bush administration was apparently similarly surprised by the development of new Chinese nuclear-submarine models, the U.S. intelligence community may have some catching up to do. Perhaps we could steal Chinese plans for stealing from the U.S.
Politically, however, U.S.-China relations are a theater of the absurd. Barack and Jinping will slap each other on the back at the tony estate that once belonged to billionaire Walter Annenberg. Minions will rush around, making sure all looks suitably regal for the two most powerful men in the world. Yet the Chinese will probably find it hard to keep a straight face, even if Obama puts on his occassional I’m-very-upset furrowed-brow look. They have his number, and since drone strikes against the Chinese leadership are off the table, they know the administration doesn’t have any other cards to play or ideas about how to punish Beijing or Chinese companies for their criminal activities. They get everything they want, including probably the password to the presidential Blackberry.
It’s time to start acting like a great power, and impose some costs on the Walmart of cyber espionage. These political confabs, which cost the U.S. taxpayer millions, should be the first to go. Business-to-business ties will go on, and student exchanges will continue, whether or not the leader of the free world diplomatically abases himself in front of the guys who just stole his new quadrophonic Blaupunkt stereo. One might think that the possibility that American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines might be put in harm’s way by the Chinese corruption of our weapons systems would cause a bit of anguish on the part of America’s leaders. But, apparently, the glorious future we are striving toward with our Chinese strategic partners outweighs the contempt in which they hold us.