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Responding Strategically: Fortifying U.S. Counterintelligence Amid Chinese Espionage Threats

Photo from: Atlantic Council

The recent sentencing of U.S. Navy sailor Wenheng Zhao, involved in espionage activities with a foreign intelligence officer, sheds light on China’s persistent efforts to collect intelligence. Rather than opting for immediate, drastic changes in response to this incident, U.S. policymakers should leverage this moment to strengthen counterintelligence systematically. This calls for a focused, measured approach to mitigate long-term security risks effectively.

Photo from: Atlantic Council

Shift from Classified Secrets to Value-driven Information

China’s continuous intelligence-gathering endeavors pose a consistent threat to U.S. national security. The cases of Zhao and Jinchao Wei, both indicted for providing sensitive military information to China, underscore the ongoing challenges. In navigating heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, policymakers should resist impulsive reactions, ensuring the response addresses long-term security risks without creating new vulnerabilities.

The cases of Zhao and Wei reveal that China recognizes the value of national security information beyond classified secrets. Despite holding secret-level security clearances, the accused sailors didn’t pass classified information. Instead, they provided valuable insights into military operations, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive response that goes beyond traditional security measures.

To proactively manage counterintelligence risks, policymakers should prioritize prevention through enhanced training programs. The Department of Defense must augment its counterintelligence threat awareness and reporting training, making it more frequent and diverse. Requiring signed acknowledgments of responsibility from recipients would reinforce accountability. While resource-intensive, this investment in prevention measures would significantly decrease long-term risks and costs.

READ ALSO: Taiwan Presidential Candidate Emphasizes Building ‘Solid’ Ties With US Prior To Resuming China Dialogue

Holistic Personnel Security Approach

Acknowledging that China’s intelligence tactics extend beyond U.S. borders, the United States should collaborate with allies and partners to share information on China’s espionage methods. Hosting regular events to exchange insights and tactics will empower allies, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific region, against similar threats. Transparency and cooperation can enhance collective resilience and response capabilities.

A more holistic, risk-based personnel security approach is essential for adapting to evolving challenges. Integrating counterintelligence with the existing security clearance system can enhance the effectiveness of U.S. military member screenings. This approach considers not only the necessity of access to classified information but also counterintelligence findings related to potential vulnerabilities. Striking this balance will optimize risk management in the face of persistent challenges in U.S.-China strategic competition.

READ ALSO: US-China Relations In 2024: Stabilizing Agendas In A Precarious Climate

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