No secrets were spilled. And all of the documents in question are publicly available. But the U.S. Army has nonetheless launched an internal review of its administrative practices after members of a Chinese military delegation began asking for U.S. government manuals a bit too aggressively during a September visit to an American base.
The so-called 15-6 investigation reflects the growing unease within some quarters of the U.S. military and the broader American national security community about how best to engage with China's People's Liberation Army. In recent years, the foundation of the relationship has been an approach best described as you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine. But some are questioning that path, especially now that China has sparked an international incident when it declared a so-called "Air Defense Identification Zone" over disputed territory late last month. Vice President Joe Biden called for that declaration to be taken back on Monday. He is expected to visit Beijing later in the week.
At issue in the Army investigation is the behavior of some members of a seven-person Chinese delegation that travelled to the U.S. in late September. The group, led by Maj. Gen. Chen Dongdeng, the PLA's director of so-called "military engagement," visited the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as part of a two-stop visit that also included Washington, D.C. The goal at Leavenworth: to "participate in an informational exchange" on U.S. Army doctrine and "operational theory," according to an internal Army news story produced at the time. But the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, which hosted the delegation, never sought the approval of the Army's G-2 intelligence directorate and bureaucratic feathers got ruffled as a result.
It might have ended there. But during the two-day visit, Dongdeng and members of his delegation asked repeatedly for copies of U.S. Army doctrine documents. Although the documents are "open source" -- meaning they are available to the public -- it was the pointed way in which the Chinese general sought them that raised eyebrows and came off as awkward, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The Army isn't commenting on the conduct of the visitors. An Army official would only acknowledge that the service is conducting an internal review of its administrative practices because of the way in which the visit was handled within the Army.
"What we're looking into is the process of foreign delegations coming to military posts," Army spokesman Lt. Col. Don Peters told Foreign Policy. "We're looking for internal administrative procedures on how to better to do this, how we can do things better."
A Chinese spokesman for the delegation was quoted in the Fort Leavenworth Lamp saying the exchange of "operational theory and doctrine" during the visit is "very important to allow our two militaries to achieve even deeper understanding of each other's military, which helps increase mutual understanding and build mutual trust."
In 2000, Congress passed legislation that limits the ways that the U.S. government can help the PLA by restricting certain "mil-to-mil" contact. The law prevents any contact at all if it poses a national security risk "due to inappropriate exposure." The law lists 12 areas, including information on "force projection" and nuclear, logistical or chemical and biological defense operations. It also restricts mil-to-mil contact on surveillance and reconnaissance operations, joint warfighting experiments and "other activities related to transformations in warfare." Since the law was passed, there has been considerable debate on how to interpret the 12 parameters, or how to ensure that the relationship between the U.S. military and the PLA can continue but stay within the confines of the law.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said she was not aware of any mil-to-mil engagements recently in which the Chinese "stepped outside of boundaries." On the contrary, she said, most have been successful. "We're not seeing a pattern of Chinese behavior like this," she said.
At least not from members of the Beijing government. In the private sector, however, it's not uncommon for Chinese business executives who are visiting American companies to attempt to split off from their guided tours and pilfer through filing cabinets or try to log into company computers, according to a former U.S. counterintelligence official. "It's like teens shoplifting. You can be supervised by a minder. Then someone causes a distraction, and another goes off to a keyboard and starts looking at something he's not supposed to," the official said.
However, the former official added that it would be rare for Chinese military officials to try to obtain secrets this way during an official visit to the United States. And if they were caught, there would be some form of official protest and the delegation would not be invited back.
When it comes to the mil-to-mil relationship between the U.S. and China, there are believers and and there are doubters. Proponents say it's a way for the U.S. to gain insight into the Chinese military and minimizes the kind of missteps and "miscalculations" that could lead to bigger problems. Skeptics, however, say there is futility in building bridges with the Chinese in the hopes the it will lead to a more transparent relationship.
A report (.pdf) from the Congressional Research Service framed the issue of the U.S.-China mil-to-mil relationship as one on which Congress should remain vigilant. "Skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with the PRC have debated whether the contacts achieve results in U.S. objectives and whether the contacts contribute to the PLA's warfighting capability that might harm U.S. and allied security interests," according to the Nov. 20 report. "Some have argued about whether the value that U.S. officials place on the contacts overly extends leverage to the PLA."
U.S. officials have repeatedly singled out China as a major source of espionage directed at U.S. corporations, government agencies, the military, and the Defense Department. In March, then National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said Chinese theft of U.S. business secrets was "a growing challenge to our economic relationship with China" and a "key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments."
In 2011, a report from the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive marked the first time that U.S. officials had publicly and on record blamed China as the source of so much industrial spying, calling the country the source of "the world's most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage."
The report stated, "China's intelligence services, as well as private companies and other entities, frequently seek to exploit Chinese citizens or persons with family ties to China who can use their insider access to corporate networks to steal trade secrets using removable media devices or e-mail."
But that report dealt mostly with cyber espionage -- Chinese spies hacking into U.S. computers and stealing information. The Ft. Leavenworth incident apparently involved no classified or even sensitive material. Which makes the fuss about it even tougher to fathom.
U.S. officials and lawmakers have been especially sensitive to potential espionage by another source in China--Huawei, the China-based telecommuniations giant. Late last month, Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Commitee, and Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to top administration officials "to experss our concerns" over reports that Huawei plans to build a broadband network in South Korea. Lawmakers and intelligence officials have accused the company of acting as a proxy for the Chinese military and intellience services.
The senators asked Secetary of State John Kerry, Secreatry of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for their "assessment of potential threats and security concerns" about Huawei's work in South Korea. The senators are concerned that having Huawei equipment in the networks of an ally that's also a bulkwark against North Korea could compromise U.S. national security. The letter was first reported in the Daily Beast.
Huawe's CEO said recently that he's giving up on the U.S. telecom market in the wake of persistent spying allegations. But its foreign business has been thriving.