Organizations created to fight terror groups after 9/11 are becoming conduits for Beijing’s surveillance and influence.
In 1999, two Chinese People’s Liberation Army colonels wrote Unrestricted Warfare, a book on the military strategy needed to defeat a technologically superior adversary like the United States. The critical insight was that the global infrastructure of U.S. dominance could be infiltrated and gradually converted into what they called “new concept weapons” against U.S. power. In this model of warfare, as China rose, Great Power competition would not take place, as the U.S. would simply fail to compete.
Recent developments in Africa show how this works. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States created an array of security arrangements intended to help African governments monitor flows of people and cargo. These fostered the growth of institutions focused on state and commercial-enterprise security, and allowed U.S. officials to track the inner workings of these governments’ security agencies and their economies’ global commercial links.
But increasingly, the United States is not the only outside power with access to this sensitive information. As Chinese firms build out the continent’s new data networks and surveillance systems, and acquire ownership stakes in ports and other facilities, they obtain not just information and data, but the use of these systems and facilities as instruments of potential attack.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is abandoning efforts to monitor and discipline other states’ participation in these security systems of its own design, continuing to privilege conventional military means, and leaving a security-leadership vacuum under the rubric of “America First.”
U.S. national security leaders must better understand these dynamics and how to combat them.
How it started
There are several security arrangements created or modified in the wake of the 9/11 attacks where this dynamic is at play.
One is the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, which led to African governments being advised on how to align their surveillance of cargos and port security measures with U.S. standards. This effort involved several U.S. government agencies to design security protocols, collect information, and arrange financing to strengthen port security in places like Berbera, Somalia. These arrangements gave U.S. officials access to sensitive information about the inner workings of these governments’ security agencies and their economies’ global commercial links.
But more recently, Chinese investments in ports and other facilities, provide host governments with cheaper ways to comply with U.S.-established codes. Chinese government-affiliated companies now have access to information that they can use to gain the upper hand in commercial deals, monitor local markets to ensure access for Chinese imports, and influence African government decisions about international trade.
Even as media and think tanks focus on the efforts of Chinese companies like GTZ to build out Africa’s 4G and soon, 5G, networks, most overlook the more immediate impact of these efforts: direct Chinese involvement in building dedicated telecommunications systems for the armed forces and security agencies of various African countries under the framework of its annual China-Africa Peace and Security Forum meetings. In the process, Chinese companies and their government gain access to information that can be used to blackmail and recruit individuals as intelligence sources as well as to monitor users’ interactions with other governments.
Another example is the 1983 Anti-Terrorism Assistance program, which, among other things, provides U.S. government lawyers to advise and help foreign countries prosecute terrorists in their countries of operation. In establishing African legal infrastructures to prosecute terrorism, the U.S. encountered difficulties, as many of the countries called to prosecute terrorists use the code civile legal systems, which China’s diplomatic lawyers are often versed in. Where the U.S. built a slow, inefficient system, China finds opportunities to exploit the American-designed structure into a “new concept weapon” to expand its political influence on the continent.
This infiltration of institutional support across the Sahel is most evident in countries with active insurgencies such as Burkina Faso. Sending prospective Foreign Service lawyers to study in French-influenced institutions, China gains soft power in the region by providing turn-key assistance. With this assistance, China gains intimate knowledge of country vulnerabilities for later exploitation. By appropriating the ATA, China incrementally replaces the consequential roles the U.S. created, utilized, and now deliberately vacates. In a slight to American lawfare strategy in the region, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations remarked to the general assembly, “we [China] aim to solve African problems in an African way".
Declining U.S. influence
The hollowing-out of American-made institutions abroad did not begin with the current administration, but the process has accelerated amid to Trump’s decisions to withdraw from international organizations and underfund U.S. agencies that oversee and discipline participants. These U.S.-designed systems remain, but U.S. personnel disappear while corrosive “America First” policies suggest to African officials that America is increasingly unreliable and no longer the indispensable nation.
As COVID-19 forced countries across the Sahel to take decisive action, many African officials looked for help from old allies only to find nearly vacated U.S. embassies and few medical resources to combat the virus. While U.S. diplomats left, China deployed health officials armed with test kits and PPE across Africa, whether they accurately worked or not did not matter, because it created the perception of a willingness to help. Chinese officials incorporated systems the U.S. built and then abandoned. Taking over the pandemic response in the region provided Chinese officials access to sovereign medical infrastructure. This access follows other Chinese takeovers in the region such as bio-identification cards and state surveillance systems, such as the World Bank’s ID for Development program to extend legal identification documents to all citizens of Africa’s countries that the U.S. helped to set up. The data gained from all these mechanisms can be aggregated to establish a complete ID of the people who live in these emerging countries, essentially weaponizing the COVID-19 response via the “new concept weapon.”
It is too early to know the long-term geopolitical and strategic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is easy to see what the U.S. is losing. American foreign policy elites should consider what a future would look like if the institutions they built — but failed to maintain — were lost. If a country sees China as a more reliable option than the United States in a time of crisis, there is no telling what would happen if either introduced an ultimatum.
The U.S. has options. Simply returning to business-as-usual by refilling embassies and recommitting to severed organizations is not a winning strategy. Embassies are only as good as the influence they produce. In the past, U.S. diplomats have retrenched when confronted with setbacks. After the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi, the U.S. scaled back face-to-face diplomacy in favor of more indirect relations. Further, agencies like WHO are already vulnerable to complete Chinese influence. The U.S. must refocus funding to organizations whose mission is to foster full-spectrum relations, such as Fulbright. This money should be earmarked with U.S. access later on. The U.S should also reengage initiatives on climate change and other global issues. By creating a system of green initiatives that global projects like BRI must abide, the U.S. can thwart Chinese expansion while replacing it with U.S. alternatives. The collision of two powers is happening. It is time to reengage world politics to seize on the shrinking advantage that remains. China shows the U.S. how it competes. Meanwhile, the U.S. buys more F-35s.
Dr. Will Reno is a Professor and Department Chair of Political Science at Northwestern University. He has over twenty years of experience studying rebel groups and weak states in Africa. Has authored several articles and three university press books.
Major Jesse Humpal is a Ph.D. Candidate at Northwestern University and active duty Air Force officer. As a SOF pilot, he has three deployments and over 500 combat flight hours. He studies revolutions, counter-systemic organizations, and global norms. He has published widely in defense outlets.