It didn't get much attention, coming as it did as the nation was dealing with COVID restrictions and often riotous protests, but U.S.-Chinese relations hit a decades-long low point on July 24.
That's the day the U.S. got fed up with Chinese spying and intellectual property theft and closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, where much of the espionage was being supervised. The move culminated a decade and a half in which the Chinese have become increasingly interested in stealing industrial and trade secrets from U.S. firms – or demanding them as a condition of doing business in China.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies says there are 138 incidents of Chinese-linked espionage in the U.S. since 2000 — almost three-fourths of them in the last eight years. The FBI says it has more than 2,000 active counterintelligence cases focused on Chinese economic espionage, and Director Christopher Wray says he opens a new one every 10 minutes.
It's not just the Chinese hackers who interfered with U.S. satellites and stole data in 2011, the 13 successful attacks on NASA computers from 2011 through 2013, the five Chinese military officers arrested in 2014 and convicted of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets, and the research on military maritime technology stolen by Chinese hackers in early 2018.
It's also a requirement for American firms wishing to do business in China to include Chinese Communist Party members on both their management and board of directors.
No wonder industrial espionage has become the focal point of U.S. relations with China since the Trump administration took office. No wonder the president has imposed tariffs to force the Chinese to change laws and policies that lead to espionage. No wonder the consulate in Houston was closed and diplomats from 55 cities kicked out of the country.
But more must be done, and it won't be easy. Tesla, for instance, has sold a 5% ownership stake to Tencent, a Chinese internet giant that the Trump administration is now scrutinizing heavily. State-owned Chinese banks are lending Tesla money to expand its car-making operations in China. This year, it admitted in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it uses some parts from Tesla in its SpaceX rockets.
That gives China a backdoor view — indeed an ownership stake — into the U.S. space industry's top contractor at this time. A 2011 law forbids China and Chinese firms from participating, collaborating or coordinating bilaterally in any project funded by NASA. But who monitors this? Who will call out Elon Musk?
That's the purpose of two amendments to the NASA funding legislation offered by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. One would require the Government Accountability Office to review NASA contractors for any business ties to China. The other would require the NASA administrator to consider involvement with China when awarding contracts.
These commonsense proposals would force U.S. officials to make themselves aware of Chinese connections to any contract entered into by NASA and to evaluate whether the contract would make it easier for the Chinese to spy on American firms and steal their technology.
It's a dicey proposition — many of the scientists working for American firms on NASA projects are themselves Chinese. But this is different from typical espionage situations, say a variety of experts.
Xi Jinping, president of China, sees the U.S. not only as a commercial competitor, but as a military and geopolitical rival. He is after far more than economic gain.
The administration is doing its part, however. It has closed the consulate. It has also launched a China initiative through the Justice Department focused on research scientists which is being led by the FBI. These have not necessarily slowed down the Chinese, which shouldn't surprise us – "Innovative technology is key to China's economic growth, which is a primary means to legitimize Chinese Communist Party rule," said Eric Zhang, who has represented hedge funds in China.
Now it is time for Congress to do its job and approve the amendments by Gardner. The space race has heated up in recent years and figures only to grow more intense as societies increasingly depend on satellites for everything from directing energy sources to facilitating cellphones and the U.S., with the inception of its Space Force, begins to look to outer space as a potential battlefield in addition to a commercial opportunity.
Space is the final frontier. We cannot let what we learn about it end up in the hands of adversaries.
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