China threat inflation is all the rage these days in Washington, particularly among lawmakers, administration officials, or policy experts who either want to look “tough” on Beijing, provide fodder to throw more money at the Pentagon to sustain or build local defense industry jobs, or maintain weapons company money flowing to many DC think tanks.
You might think that the fourth estate should serve as a check on some of this anti-China hysteria but oftentimes the U.S. mainstream media joins in. This week, the New York Times was the latest to fear monger about the Chinese threat. The Times reported on Thursday (June 1) that Beijing is mining “open-source intelligence” from the United States — or in other words, reading American newspapers and publicly available academic or think tank reports — that it can “use to help plan for a potential conflict with the United States.”
The Times was passing on findings from an analysis by threat intelligence company Recorded Future, which says a Chinese open-source intel company has been mining publicly available information from the Office of Net Assessment, a Pentagon think tank, and the U.S. Naval War College.
“The P.L.A. very much assumes the United States will in some form intervene in a Taiwan conflict, and they work very hard to prepare for that type of scenario,” said Recorded Future’s Zoe Haver.
But of course, none of this is new information or surprising. Everyone knows the Chinese military is preparing for the possibility that the United States will intervene in any Taiwan conflict. And anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention to U.S.-China relations would assume Beijing is mining open-source data, just as the United States does with friends and foes alike.
“Powerful countries collecting intelligence on other powerful countries (including their own allies) is a universal and banal feature of international relations, and it only becomes a danger to national security if the other country is a committed enemy,” said Jake Werner, who specializes in U.S.-China relations as a Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute. “China is not today a U.S. enemy, but feverishly hyping supposed threats from China is driving a confrontational approach to U.S.–China relations that risks turning China into such an enemy.”
Werner added, referring to the Times article, “treating China as an enemy encourages the exaggeration of differences between the two countries and blindness to similarities.”
Exaggerating those differences and engaging in China threat-inflation is also good for business, whether that means selling more newspapers, getting reelected, giving more money to the defense industry, and getting funding directly from it. Indeed, any company involved in “threat intelligence,” as Recorded Future apparently is, certainly has an interest in seeing that those threats exist, real or imagined.