The view from Beijing

In 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an official trip to China that was a major milestone for the Obama administration’s outreach effort in Asia. It was a milestone for Beijing too, just not a diplomatic one. It ended up as a backdrop for China to show off its 21st-century military prowess with the People’s Liberation Army unveiling a new warplane designed to go head to head with America’s best fighters.

It is hard to upstage a visit from the Pentagon’s top official, but China succeeded because the demonstration tapped into the vein of American insecurity about the control of the Pacific Ocean.

As President Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping get together this weekend in California for a much anticipated summit, the two men were expected to have a tough exchange over the future of another economically critical and formidable expanse of territory: cyberspace.

In confronting President Xi over Chinese hacking of defense targets, President Obama was no doubt prepared to use the moral high ground staked out by the U.S. His case was buttressed by recently leaked reports that laid bare the dozens of frontline American weapons programs and technologies penetrated by Chinese cyberspies.

Then came revelations this week in the Guardian and the Washington Post that revealed the extent of U.S. government surveillance of Internet activities around the world. From Skype calls to e-mails to texts, all is apparently fair game through what has been reportedly described as direct access to the servers of leading online service providers and technology giants such as Google and Microsoft, among others.

It is an unprecedented level of government monitoring that may even surprise, or regrettably impress, President Xi. It will certainly be familiar to him as Chinese citizens already live in a world where the wonderful spontaneity of electronic communication carries an undercurrent of potentially devastating liability.

For Americans it is a disappointing coda to a decade of wartime. America’s defense and intelligence bureaucracy, which began to drown in data during the 1990s, is so big that simply collecting more information is an operational and organizational goal in and of itself.

If there is anything positive to glean from this revelation, it is that it offers President Obama queasy common ground with President Xi. China’s extensive domestic surveillance and Internet monitoring is a frequent friction point over how it treats its citizens

Beijing’s belief in a stable and secure China is so strong that it will go to any length to keep the nation prosperous and intact. This goal is not unreasonable for a world power. How it is achieved is what differentiates a repressive society from a free one. That is evident in China’s domestic surveillance efforts, which it does not try to veil from anyone.

It is also visible in its abiding hunger to create a superpower’s military capable of the high-tech warfare the U.S. has practiced for more than twenty years. By any means necessary China will get there and stealing secrets is a quick way to fill in technological gaps. China is shifting from leaning on Russian weapons imports to producing its own systems, as the J-20 has shown.

So far a carrot-and-stick approach over critical national security issues such as Internet freedom or cybersecurity has not worked to get China’s leaders to hew to the rules America wants followed. On one hand, Washington decries China’s cyberspying on the Pentagon and threatens unspecific consequences. At the same time, the U.S. military seeks friendlier terms with the PLA and senior officials go out of their way to sell the idea that Air-Sea Battle Doctrine is not aimed at China. All the while, China continues to ignore international law and play fast and loose with the developed norms of Internet security, no matter what the White House has said.

Whether this conclave is successful in getting China’s top leadership to change depends on Washington doing a better job of seeing Beijing’s ambitions from a Chinese perspective. Perhaps it will be a success after all. The past week’s revelations may not overshadow President Xi’s historic visit. But they ought to give President Obama some needed perspective on Beijing’s worldview.