On Aug. 3, the Department of Justice indicted and arrested two U.S. sailors on separate charges of “transmitting sensitive military information to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).” The sailors, Wei Jinchao and Zhao Wenheng, are accused of sending sensitive U.S. national security information to Chinese intelligence officers.
Astoundingly, at least one sailor, Mr. Wei, was a citizen of China when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. A concerning part of these two espionage cases is what they have in common. Both sailors had access to high levels of classified materials, and both were seeking operation information on amphibious ships.
Though the Chinese Communist Party is well versed in modern, high-tech surveillance, it still uses tried-and-true espionage tactics.
Perhaps that’s because the U.S. government has repeatedly failed to protect its citizens from these well-known threats. More specifically, Washington has not done enough to protect Chinese Americans whom the Chinese government actively targets to become assets, as in the cases of Messrs. Wei and Zhao.
These failures trace back to at least 2017, when President Xi Jinping declared China’s intention to target “overseas Chinese” and created the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to recruit Chinese emigrants with access to sought-after information.
Of course, these efforts fail most of the time, but as Mr. Wei‘s and Mr. Zhao’s cases reflect, “capturing the talent” of even one or two expatriates can make a big difference.
The targeting of our citizens this way must be stopped. Our Chinese American citizens especially must be better safeguarded from entrapment by China. Simply put, the United States must take more extensive measures to defend itself from such infiltration.
For starters, despite the troubles our military is having with recruiting, people from threat nations such as Iran, China or Russia wishing to join the U.S. military should be scrutinized more closely. Extra care should be taken to their posting in sensitive positions.
Under military enlistment regulations, non-U.S. citizens can join the military if they have a U.S. Permanent Resident Card (“green card”) and speak English.
China is taking advantage of this policy. In the case of Mr. Wei, he was born in China and was applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen when he agreed to actively commit espionage on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. The citizenship or naturalization status of the other sailor—Mr. Zhao—has not been reported.
These cases of Chinese espionage are unlike Chinese efforts at intellectual property theft or reverse engineering of American products. In this case, valuable “end products” of U.S. military information, from weapons systems to operational plans of upcoming Indo-Pacific military exercises, have been stolen.
Simply put, the party is obtaining U.S. naval ship blueprints that potentially allow it to close the gap with U.S. naval capabilities at a discount.
And this isn’t the only way the Chinese Communist Party is infiltrating America. From infiltrating our education system through Confucius Institutes and harassing students to using ostensibly civilian-run media outlets to push pro-PRC propaganda, the party is engaged in unprecedented espionage efforts across the U.S. using a variety of methods.
Businesses are also being taken advantage by Chinese state-sponsored espionage through economic and intellectual property theft.
In a new twist, enterprises linked to the Chinese Communist Party have even been buying land near critical infrastructure, military bases and sensitive installations as part of a larger “new Cold War.”
The lesson for Washington is clear: Chinese espionage is no longer limited to agents lurking in the shadows. China is using advanced and innovative methods and taking full advantage of every one of our weaknesses. Something has to change.
One important step could be reinstating the DOJ’s China Initiative. The China Initiative was a Trump administration program that investigated CCP espionage activities endangering U.S. national security. It was dismantled due to accusations of “racial profiling.”
Given the cases of Messrs. Wei and Zhao, it’s the Chinese Communist Party that is doing the racial profiling.
The arrest of these two U.S. sailors serves as a reminder of the CCP’s threat to the United States and the need to better protect our Chinese American citizens from such nefarious targeting.
Only time will tell how much damage these espionage efforts have already done, but clearly more effective countermeasures must be implemented.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times