WASHINGTON - Specific incidents can sometimes reveal much larger truths. This would seem to be the case regarding recent revelations that the Chinese have been eavesdropping on U.S. President Donald Trump’s less-than-secure phone calls and using the information gathered as part of an elaborate plot to influence the president. If true, this story — which the president has denied — is not only a testament to Trump’s attachment to his smartphones and his casual disregard for established security procedures. It also highlights three critical issues in the intensifying U.S.-China competition.
The first is the sophistication and aggressiveness of Chinese influence operations. There is nothing particularly unusual or impressive about the espionage dimension of the story: Listening in on foreign leaders’ mobile phone calls is what spy agencies, including American spy agencies, do. The New York Times reported Russian agents have been listening in on Trump as well.
More interesting is that Beijing is reportedly employing the information gleaned from this espionage not simply to observe the president’s thinking but to shape it.
Chinese intelligence officials have allegedly been constructing a virtual map of the president’s contacts and confidants, with the goal of using businessmen and other Chinese cutouts to influence associates of those contacts. Those associates will then influence the confidants themselves, who will influence the president. The ultimate goal appears to be to shift the president’s hard-line approach to the escalating trade war with the United States, and to persuade him to meet more regularly with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Whether this strategy could work is anyone’s guess. Yet such an approach shows a fairly sharp grasp of Trump’s personality — notably, his susceptibility to persuasion by friends or even foreign leaders on critical policy matters — and a shrewd and patient approach to exploiting that personality. China’s strategy also testifies to the fact that Beijing has spent decades building ties of influence and reciprocity with businessmen, current and former politicians, and other prominent Americans — just the sort of people Trump is likely to talk to — as a way of moving U.S. policy in the direction Chinese leaders prefer.
Russia’s information warfare and influence operations may get most of the headlines, but China has been playing this game very well for a very long time.
Second, this story shows how significantly Trump has shaken up the U.S.-China relationship. That relationship was headed for rougher weather regardless of who was elected president in 2016, simply because Beijing’s growing power and global ambitions have been threatening American interests in more serious ways. Nonetheless, the Chinese have clearly been put off balance by an administration that has seemed so willing to upset the status quo.
The rhetoric coming out of Washington since the release of the National Security Strategy in late 2017 has been more explicitly adversarial than anything Beijing has experienced since the Cold War. Indeed, Vice President Mike Pence’s speech on U.S.-China relations earlier this month was more than vaguely reminiscent of the rhetorical warfare that characterized that conflict.
Policy has sometimes lagged rhetoric, but Trump himself has also proved more confounding than the Chinese expected. The president did not settle for some superficial agreement to reduce bilateral trade tensions; he repeatedly doubled down by imposing steadily escalating tariffs on Chinese goods. To be clear, there is plenty to criticize in Trump’s approach, such as the fawning admiration he displayed toward Xi during his trip to Beijing in 2017 and the alienation of the allies and partners whose support should be a critical U.S. asset in any geo-economic or geopolitical confrontation with China. But news that the Chinese are going to such lengths to influence the president is perhaps an implicit admission of his success in shaking up long-standing patterns of bilateral relations.
Third, however, this episode raises the obvious question of whether Trump’s free-wheeling style will prove more of an asset or a liability as bilateral tensions deepens.
The Chinese may or may not gain critical intelligence from listening in on Trump: It is hard to imagine that the president’s phone calls could be that much more revealing than his voluminously indiscreet tweets and campaign rallies. The broader issue, though, is that Trump’s apparent disregard for basic security procedures speaks to a lack of discipline and seriousness that is not likely to benefit Washington in dealing with a rival that combines relentless opportunism with painstaking efforts to exploit an adversary’s carelessness.
If smartphone-gate reminds us of anything, it is that the Chinese are out to win the defining geopolitical competition of the 21st century. U.S. leaders ought to tighten up their own act if they hope to prevail.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”