Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 17

At the most important defense show in the Middle East, a major American company was demonstrating its missile defense plans and achievements using a VCR and a large TV monitor. Waiting until the lunch hour, when the American exhibit was down to one person, a two-man Chinese team saw their opportunity and took it. The first got in the American’s face and distracted him with technical questions in broken English. While this was going on, the other hit the “Eject” button on the VCR, dropped the tape into a plastic bag and disappeared into the crowd.

At the same event, a second two-man Chinese team hit another American defense firm. This time it was after the technical specifications of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, especially the turret. Here there was no videotape, only a model too big to steal. Again they waited until the American exhibit was down to one person and, again, the first agent concentrated on distracting the American exhibitor. The second agent, evidently a technical artist, quickly took pictures of the model and then produced an amazingly accurate drawing of the turret workings. Specialists at the show speculated that the operation might be related to a flaw in China’s most modern tank: Under excessive heat conditions, such as the Sindh Desert in Pakistan, the turrets of Chinese tanks freeze as the steel expands. In modern warfare, a tank whose turret won’t revolve is a dead tank. As demonstrated in the Gulf War, American turrets revolve in any kind of weather.

Two American companies were victimized. Neither lodged an official complaint–too much China business for that. They did quietly pass word to Washington. Two stories went into the expanding folklore of Chinese collection efforts.

That was 1997. Now fast-forward five years to July 2002 and the Farnborough Air Show south of London. A former RAF base and the sometime headquarters of British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), Farnborough will be the largest aerospace show this year.

Watching the comrade collectors working Farnborough, words such as “massive,” “thorough,” “organized” and “blatant” come to mind. A rough guess would be perhaps 300 individuals were involved. No more technical artist drawings. Now everyone has a digital still or movie camera hung around his or her neck. A few individuals operated alone but mostly it was a team effort–two, three, four, even five people, all under an obvious team leader, a man or woman in his or her 50s. This was serious business—no one in his 20s was observed.

The Chinese collection teams seem to be broken down into five categories:

  • Senior military
    There were a number of Chinese military delegations led by “General” rank officers. In one case, a Chinese major general in civilian clothes was observed and in another a senior colonel [western rank of brigadier general] from the “PLA General Staff” led a four-person team. In most cases the flag officers kept to the VIP areas. Representatives of the PLA’s General Armament Department were not directly identified, but Farnborough would have been within their purview.
  • Senior civilian defense officials
    A deputy director of China’s leading military aerospace company led a three-person team through the Sukhoi pavilion. It seems likely that representatives from COSTIND [China’s military R&D organization] and other parts of the Chinese defense industrial base would have made up some of the teams observed.
  • Hard men
    These were the professional collectors from China’s principal intelligence agencies, the Ministry of State Security [China’s KGB] and the PLA’s Second Department, the equivalent of the old Soviet GRU military spy agency. These teams were the most thorough and moved from one exhibit to another in a concentrated pattern. Every individual and every team had a specific assignment. Observing their operations from the center of the exhibition halls, it seemed like human vacuum cleaners were at work. The professionals were the hardest working and under the most pressure but in one unusual case, the team leader took a “dress down day.” Wearing an open-necked blue shirt and sandals, he directed his sharp-suited subordinates to make certain they covered the French missile display from top to bottom.
  • Academics and engineers
    To the Chinese language-trained ear, there were fewer Beijing accents and more Szechwan in these teams, perhaps reflecting the location of many PLA-associated research institutes. They seemed to have short lists of prior contacts among the Western aerospace companies participating at Farnborough.
  • Photographers
    There were at least two separate male-female teams of still and film crews. In a systematic way they were covering almost everything and from multiple angles. The film crew was observed taking ultra-slow motion shots of every missile Raytheon had on display.

While the various Chinese collection teams may have been from different parts of the system, it was clear that everybody knew everybody. A common sight was a gathering of two or more collection teams to compare notes. Sometimes ten or more people would completely block the sidewalk.

What do we make of all this? First, the Chinese collection effort at international defense shows is unprecedented and unmatched in scope and sheer numbers. There are some discrete NATO-country and Japanese collectors around but all of them put together wouldn’t come near to matching the Chinese endeavor. Second, observing the Chinese collection effort at defense shows is a useful exercise at counterintelligence. What is concentrated on one spot during one week’s time may be symptomatic of China’s worldwide collection effort through the year.

Given the magnitude of the effort and the fact that it’s replicated at all major international defense shows over the course of the year strongly suggests that Chinese intelligence agencies and their customers feel they have a successful program. If Chinese armor can now function fully in extreme heat, we can probably trace it to one particular incident. In other cases, multiple pictures of an aircraft model can inform the Chinese computer base of the infrared-imaging guidance system of new PLA Air Force short-range air-to-air missiles.

What about reciprocity? In the first place, at Farnborough the Chinese had only one small booth over in a corner. Four trips to the booth yielded no one to talk to and one ten-year old brochure lying around. By contrast, every NATO country [except Portugal], plus Japan, plus Switzerland, plus Sweden had major exhibits of their defense wares. Further, the international arena abounds with major defense shows, including specialized shows for naval warfare, information warfare, special operations, etc, etc. China, by contrast, has one air show every two years and one defense electronics show. Some of those who have attended the Chinese shows complain of a level of openness substantially less than international standards.

What, if anything, should be done about it? The international show organizers aren’t going to uninvite the Chinese collection machine and we’ll all grow old waiting for the Chinese to be more open at their own shows. But if we recognize the Chinese collection effort for what it is, military industrial espionage on a grand scale, we may, through education, be able to slow it down and limit the damage a bit.

Unfortunately, the American Executive Branch has not been that successful dealing with any form of Chinese espionage. Perhaps it’s time for the U.S.-China Security Commission, a legislative branch organization, to take the lead and make this issue part of its work plan for the next fiscal year.

William C. Triplett II was deputy assistant USTR in the first Reagan administration and later served as chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is the co-author of Year of the Rat, Red Dragon Rising and Target Taiwan.