In recent times, the audacity of China’s covert attempts to gather intelligence on U.S. soil has reached new heights. Imagine this: Chinese nationals, under the guise of being mere tourists, brazenly accessing military bases and sensitive American sites. According to U.S. officials, this has occurred as many as 100 times!
Picture someone casually wandering into a U.S. missile range in New Mexico or scuba divers mysteriously floating in the waters near a government rocket-launch site in Florida. These are not scenes from a Hollywood spy thriller; they are real events. The gall of these attempts suggests that these individuals are not just curious tourists but are likely engaged in low-level espionage activities, with an intent to report back to their homeland.
In a world where tensions between China and the U.S. are already high, these incidents add fuel to the fire. It’s not just about wandering tourists. Remember the Chinese spy balloon that U.S. officials shot down? Equipped with surveillance gear, it drifted into U.S. airspace, significantly increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing.
There’s a broader concern at play: the nontraditional means Beijing might be using to gather intelligence on U.S. soil. And while some of these incursions might seem innocent, like those claiming they’re merely following their GPS to a fast-food restaurant, others are more overt and alarming. Take, for instance, the group of ‘tourists’ who tried to push past guards at Alaska’s Fort Wainwright, home to the Army’s 11th Airborne Division specialized in Arctic warfare. These aren’t ordinary tourists, and their stories, like having reservations at on-base hotels, seem scripted.
Emily Harding from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington explained the strategy succinctly. It’s a numbers game. The Chinese are counting on the sheer volume of people they send, hoping that while some might get caught, others will slip through and gather valuable intel.
For the ones that do get caught, the repercussions are often minor. Trespassing is the usual charge, which Beijing dismisses with little more than a shrug. But what if the roles were reversed? An American caught in China would face severe consequences, possibly without a fair trial. Chinese intelligence seems to have no problem taking advantage of America’s fair and balanced justice system.
While U.S. officials are undoubtedly concerned about these intrusions, there’s a challenge in categorizing and addressing them. Most are considered low-level threats, with many individuals simply being turned around at military gates. Yet, there are still those that raise eyebrows, like Chinese nationals snapping pictures at a U.S. Army range or the audacious ones diving off Cape Canaveral, near the Kennedy Space Center, a critical site for military and spy satellite launches.
And it’s not just military bases. U.S. officials also note incidents where Chinese nationals, again posing as tourists, venture off designated tour areas around the White House, attempting to capture shots of communication gear and security guard positions. There’s also the infamous 2019 case where a Chinese woman was caught entering former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate with multiple electronic devices.
This isn’t new. 6 years ago a Chinese dissident reported that China has more than 25,000 spies in the U.S. Their excess of cash from doing a brusque business with the West has given China the ability to spend money freely to undermine our universities, steal technology from our best companies and much more.
But keep in mind that these may not be just for gathering intelligence on the base. They may also be probing for weaknesses in the security of the base to configure attack plans.
Although many of these trespassers are detained briefly and then escorted out of the country, the implications are clear. The audacity of these attempts, their frequency, and the potential information they could gather is a pressing concern for the U.S. authorities. As the U.S. tightens its security measures and conducts reviews, one must wonder: How many more audacious attempts will it take before a major security breach occurs?
And what is China preparing for?