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    Greater China
     Apr 3, 2008
The age of the immigrant spy
By Sreeram Chaulia

Be subtle! be subtle! and use your spies for every kind of business. - Sun Tzu in Art of War, Chapter XIII

One March 25, Chinese-born engineer Chi Mak was sentenced to over 24 years in prison by a Californian court for plotting to obtain American naval submarine technology and illegally exporting it to China. The case offered a rare peek into the new multipolar world espionage system that is more complex than that of the bipolar Cold War-era.

While spying is reputed to be the world's second-oldest profession, existing from time immemorial, its peculiar shapes and patterns are provided by the changing configurations of global power. Routine intelligence gathering by agents of one state in another state occurs both in wartime and peacetime, but the states that invest the most and reap the maximum from spying


 

have always been great powers.

The ideal spy is one who is a citizen or resident of the target country, has access to its sensitive decision making portals, and/or is part of its government or industrial machinery. By virtue of their deep pockets, great powers tend to scoop up the bulk of such perfect candidates and leave the dregs to the wannabes.

The quality foreign agents' market is thus an "oligopsony" that responds to the choices of a small number of great power buyers. In this imperfectly competitive market where the big buyers set the rules, the techniques, pay scales and risks that define the trade are decided essentially by the preferences and counter-espionage tactics of the great powers.

It is in this context that incidents like the conviction of Chi Mak in California assume significance. China's choice of utilizing persons of Chinese origin residing in the United States, though not unique, is a sustained preference that is changing the rules of the market.
For nearly two decades, Beijing has mobilized the Chinese-American community to penetrate US military corporations that are working on government defense contracts. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, Beijing recruits these agents by playing the "shared ancestry" card as an accompaniment to the usual monetary remuneration.

US counter-espionage professionals contend that this is a unique style patented by China wherein the agents are relative amateurs such as Chinese students, businesspersons, visiting scientists as well as persons of Chinese heritage living in the US. Each individual may produce only a small iota of data, but a network of such persons could vacuum up an extensive amount of sensitive military and economic information.

Attesting to this strategy, high-profile arrests of Chinese intelligence agents in the US are always characterized as "spy rings" that involved multiple coordinates. Chi Mak was arrested in 2005 along with four other family members who were acting as couriers or accomplices at different points of the information chain that allegedly traced its way from Los Angeles to China's Ministry of State Security and the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

In February, the duo of Tai Shen Kuo and Yu Xin Kang was arrested in New Orleans, Louisiana, for purchasing classified data about US weapons systems being shipped to Taiwan. While Kuo apparently cultivated a relationship with a Pentagon official, Kang acted as a "cut out" or intermediary between Kuo and a Chinese government official.

Unrelated to Kuo and Kang's case is the arrest in February 2008 of Dongfan Chung, an ex-Boeing engineer accused of passing on details of antenna systems for space shuttles to the Chinese government. Chung's indictment claims that he had good relations with Mak's family and had been advised by his Chinese handlers to pass information through Mak in the 1980s.

As in the other cases, Chung was gathering low-grade intelligence that was not, in itself, of high value. John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, remarked on Chung's arrest to the Orange County Register, "Chinese do not hit home runs. Their theory is that if you do enough of it, eventually it will amount to something."
The concentric circle in which a Chinese American like Mak, residing in California, teams up with a fellow Chinese American like Chung, in Florida, and unknown others indicates that espionage has truly entered a multipolar era. Instead of the classical methods used by other great power intelligence services involving tight control over a few, deeply planted and valuable assets, Beijing employs an array of decentralized networks that thrive on the Chinese diaspora.

That this strategy is not limited to spying on the US is revealed by allegations of a former Chinese diplomat, Chen Yonglin, that Beijing had more than a thousand secret agents operating in Australia and Canada. Yonglin emphasized to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the networks "extend to countries with large Chinese immigrant populations".

If China revolutionized the mass production and export of low-value added manufacturing goods, it has also invented a new brand of high-volume low-unit-value intelligence collection that might be copied by other emerging great powers.

In March 2008, Parthasarathy Sudarshan, an Indian-American owner of an electronics firm, was found guilty in a US court of conspiring to illegally export controlled microprocessors and electronic components to government entities in India developing ballistic missiles. Like the Chinese government in cases involving Chinese-American spies, the Indian government has firmly denied being connected with Sudarshan. However, the US Justice Department cited an unnamed Indian Embassy official in Washington DC as "co-conspirator A".

The rise of China and India is indeed eating into the fading unipolar moment of the US. However, its implications for the nature of espionage have not been fully understood. With their soaring profiles and ambitions, it is certain that China and India will invest more resources into foreign intelligence gathering and operations. Unlike the US and Russia, which do not boast of sizeable immigrant populations settled in other parts of the world, China and India have large numbers of skilled non-residents living abroad. The cultural and patriotic ties that bind Chinese and Indian immigrants to their homelands are ripe terrain for recruitment into the world of espionage.

The eventual dropping of spying charges against some Chinese Americans like nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee has generated cries of racial profiling and harassment of Asians in the US. However, the bevy of new cases since Lee confirms that China is indeed using its immigrants strategically. If India does the same, then the very tactics and strategy of espionage will be altered.

During the Cold War, the "oligopsony" of great powers that defined the parameters and best practices of the spying profession was limited to the US, the USSR and a handful of European countries. Now, with China believed to have grown into an aggressive player in foreign espionage and India possibly catching up, the field is wider and the profession is reflecting the changed multipolar world order. The widening of the scope of intelligence by new power centers in Asia erodes the superiority of Western powers that hitherto enjoyed an advantage in strategic developments due to their comparative edge in "private information".

At the same time, new Asian intelligence methods offer lessons for Western powers which have been criticized since September 11, 2001, for weak "HUMINT" (human intelligence). The razzle-dazzle of spy planes and unmanned aerial drones has proven incapable of ferreting out the Osama bin Ladens of the world.

If technological gadgets were sufficient for succeeding in espionage, the US "war on terror" would not have fared as poorly as at present. The Asian mantra is that spying yields its best fruits when it is an art conducted by thinking humans rather than an assignment left to programmed machines.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York. He can be contacted at sreeramchaulia@hotmail.com

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