WASHINGTON — As China’s spy balloon drifted across the continental United States in February, US intelligence agencies learned that Chinese President Xi Jinping had become enraged with senior Chinese military generals.
The spy agencies had been trying to understand what Xi knew and what actions he would take as the balloon, originally aimed at US military bases in Guam and Hawaii, was blown off course.
Xi was not opposed to risky spying operations against the United States, but US intelligence agencies concluded that the People’s Liberation Army had kept Xi in the dark until the balloon was over the United States.
US officials would not discuss how spy agencies gleaned this information. But they discovered that when Xi learned of the balloon’s trajectory and realized it was derailing planned talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he berated senior generals for failing to tell him that the balloon had gone astray, according to US officials briefed on the intelligence.
The episode threw a spotlight on the expanding and highly secretive spy-versus-spy contest between the United States and China. The balloon crisis, a small part of a much larger Chinese espionage effort, reflects a brazen new aggressiveness by Beijing in gathering intelligence on the United States as well as Washington’s growing capabilities to collect its own information on China.
For Washington, the espionage efforts are a critical part of President Biden’s strategy to constrain the military and technological rise of China, in line with his thinking that the country poses the greatest long-term challenge to American power.
For Beijing, the new tolerance for bold action among Chinese spy agencies is driven by Xi, who has led his military to engage in aggressive moves along the nation’s borders and pushed his foreign intelligence agency to become more active in farther-flung locales.
The main efforts on both sides are aimed at answering the two most difficult questions: What are the intentions of leaders in the rival nation? And what military and technological capabilities do they command?
US officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss espionage, have stressed in interviews throughout the year the magnitude of the challenge. The CIA is focusing on Xi and, in particular, his intentions regarding Taiwan. The FBI’s counterintelligence task forces across the nation have intensified their hunt for Chinese efforts to recruit spies inside the United States. US agents have identified a dozen penetrations by Chinese citizens of military bases on American soil in the past 12 months.
Both countries are racing to develop their artificial intelligence technology, which they believe is critical to maintaining a military and economic edge and will give their spy agencies new capabilities.
The spy conflict with China is even more expansive than the one that played out between the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War, said FBI Director Christopher Wray. China’s large population and economy enable it to build intelligence services that are bigger than those of the United States.
“The fact is that compared to the PRC, we’re vastly outnumbered on the ground, but it’s on us to defend the American people here at home,” Wray said in an interview, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China. “I view this as the challenge of our generation.”
China sees it differently. Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, has said that “it is the US that is the No. 1 surveillance country and has the largest spy network in the world.”
Espionage can halt a slide into war or smooth the path of delicate negotiations, but it can also speed nations toward armed conflict or cause diplomatic rifts.
China’s vastly improved satellite reconnaissance and its cyberintrusions are its most important means of collecting intelligence, US officials say. The fleet of spy balloons, though far less sophisticated, has allowed China to exploit the unregulated zone of “near space.” And the US government is warning allies that China’s electronic surveillance capabilities could expand if the world’s nations use technology from Chinese communications companies.
Artificial intelligence is another battleground. The US government sees its lead in AI as a way to help offset China’s strength in numbers. Chinese officials hope the technology will help them counter American military power, including by pinpointing US submarines and establishing domination of space, US officials say.
US officials are also more concerned than ever at Chinese agencies’ efforts to gather intelligence through personal contacts. They say China’s main intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, aims to place agents or recruit assets across the US government, as well as in technology companies and the defense industry.
Chinese agents use social media sites — LinkedIn, in particular — to lure potential recruits. Any time an American takes a publicly disclosed intelligence job, they can expect a barrage of outreach from Chinese citizens on social media, according to current and former officials.
Responding to that threat, federal agencies have quietly opened or expanded their in-house spy catching operations. And Wray said the FBI has thousands of open Chinese intelligence investigations, and every one of its 56 field offices has active cases. All of those field offices have counterintelligence and cyber task forces largely focused on the threat from Chinese intelligence.
Those investigations involve attempts by Chinese spies to recruit informants, steal information, hack into systems, and monitor and harass Chinese dissidents in the United States, including using so-called police outposts.
“They’re going after everything,” Wray said. “What makes the PRC intelligence apparatus so pernicious is the way it uses every means at its disposal against us all at once, blending cyber, human intelligence, corporate transactions and investments to achieve its strategic goals.”
No issue in US-China relations has loomed larger than Taiwan. It is the flashpoint likeliest to lead to war, analysts say. Xi has said China must take control of Taiwan, a de facto independent island, and has ordered his military to be capable of doing so by 2027. But so far, the United States and its allies do not appear to have concrete intelligence on whether Xi would be willing to order an invasion.
And China obsesses over the flip side of the question. Biden has declared four times that the US military will defend Taiwan should China try to seize the island. But whether Biden really means that — and whether US leaders plan to permanently keep Taiwan out of China’s reach — are believed to be focal points of some of China’s intelligence efforts.
In the absence of real intelligence on intentions, US and Chinese officials are focused on gathering information on each other’s military capabilities. The United States, for instance, has stepped up its aerial surveillance of Chinese military bases.
Meanwhile, Chinese intelligence agents have penetrated many parts of the Taiwanese government over the decades, former US intelligence officials say. Chinese agents are now trying to learn more about the Biden administration’s efforts to outfit Taiwan with certain weapons systems and provide secret training for Taiwanese troops. Chinese agents also seek more details on the growing military cooperation between the United States and Asian allies.
US intelligence officials believe that China does not want to go to war now over Taiwan, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told Congress in March.
“We assess that Beijing still believes it benefits most,” she said, “by preventing a spiraling of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States.”