How China’s Quest for Dominance Is an All-Encompassing Threat

Xi Jinping seeks geopolitical, military, and economic superiority.

Years from now, we may look back at the first weeks of 2020 as a key juncture in the history of America’s “great power competition” with China. On Feb. 6, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted the China Initiative Conference, during which America’s top law enforcement and counterintelligence officials made their case to the public. The U.S. government is attempting to marshal a countrywide defense against China’s spy war—a systemic initiative to undermine the American economy and national security.  

Over the course of nearly four hours at the CSIS headquarters in Washington, various speakers, including Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray, explained the myriad ways Chinese subterfuge is eroding America’s technological and military dominance. This isn’t the work of a few spies. Xi Jinping and his lieutenants are employing multiple stratagems, from buying off professors at American universities, to stealing the personal identifying information for nearly half of all Americans, to surreptitiously acquiring intellectual property and trade secrets. 

None of these are hypothetical threats. The Department of Justice (DoJ) and FBI are investigating dozens of cases. During the first weeks of 2020 alone, the feds arrested one of America’s top nanoscientists, added an alleged Chinese spy who studied at Boston University to America’s Most Wanted list, and charged four Chinese military spies with plundering the databases of Equifax, the consumer credit reporting agency. 

We will delve into some of these cases a bit more below. But first, I’d like to draw attention to the presentation given by William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). This is a man at the center of America’s response to China’s spy war. And his warnings should be heeded.

China’s quest for dominance.

Odds are that while you know who Barr and Wray are, you’ve never heard of Evanina or the NCSC. I knew little about the NCSC until last week. Quite frankly, I still don’t know much about it—other than the information America’s counter-spooks make public. But over the course of 20 minutes at the China Initiative Conference, the NCSC head made a compelling case that China’s clandestine activities pose a unique set of threats and challenges. Evanina issued a “call to arms,” one that he hopes American citizens, universities and corporations will answer, because a “whole of society approach” is necessary for “defending the values of America” and ensuring the country’s “economic security.” 

According to Evanina, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has “one goal” and that is “to be the global leader geopolitically, militarily and economically.” Xi and his Communist party “will stop at nothing to get there.” 

China’s quest for dominance isn’t limited to the military sphere, or sensitive weaponry. Consider a few of the examples Evanina highlighted—with some additional background facts from my own research.

China’s growing economic might. 

The tectonic plates underneath the world economy have shifted dramatically in the past two decades. Before we proceed, though, here's a note of caution. Much of the Chinese economy and society exists in a black box and a healthy dose of skepticism is in order when evaluating any statistics reported by Xi Jinping's officials. In 2004, according to a list compiled by Forbes, seven of the world’s ten largest companies were American. None of them were Chinese. As of 2019, five of the 10 ten largest companies were Chinese, including three of the top four. Only four of the top 10 were American. This is a stunning reversal in the relative positions of America’s and China’s economic powerhouses. 

This trajectory gets only more worrisome when you consider, as Evanina pointed out, that the Chinese government dominates business. There is no dividing line between private and public interests in China, as there is inside the U.S. Therefore, 12 of the top 15 businesses in China are owned or largely controlled by the Chinese government. No significant business is allowed to operate completely outside of the regime’s purview, as Chinese laws mandate that all institutions cooperate with the national security state. The Chinese have fused military and civilian interests in a manner that is entirely unfamiliar to the American way of life. And this fusion extends to the financial sector, as the government controls banking. 

Therefore, China’s economic growth isn’t simply a matter of power shifting to a new, more innovative and risk-taking set of private actors. To the contrary, China’s economy is both controlled by, and directly benefits, its authoritarian regime. 


Chinese companies own nearly half (48.9 percent) of the global smartphone market share as of the third quarter of 2019. That is a stunning figure. The first smartphones weren’t introduced until the summer of 2007, when Apple launched the iPhone. A dozen years later, Chinese providers, operating under the auspices of the government, have gobbled up market share around the world. 

Evanina noted that the Chinese government isn’t bound by the same privacy laws as the U.S. government. Therefore, the Chinese don’t need a court order to break into those phones to monitor their citizens’ contacts and messages. Nor does the Chinese government need a court order to spy on foreign businessmen using compromised smartphones. This is an obvious security liability for Chinese dissidents and foreigners, but it could potentially jeopardize the communications of others everywhere Chinese smartphones are sold. 

Stealing technology for electric cars.

Despite rapid (yet erratic) growth, electric vehicles (EV) account for only a small share of the American market. They are more popular in China, where the government has subsidized EVs and set regulatory policies (such as easier and quicker vehicle registrations for city dwellers) to favor EVs over more traditional autos. Chinese officials are betting EVs are the future, according to Evanina. They are forecasting that annual EV sales will account for 40 percent of the Chinese market by 2025.

Indeed, EVs are one of the core technologies included in the “Made in China 2025” strategic plan, which was announced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2015.

China is already the worldwide leader in EV sales, so it isn’t entirely surprising to learn that Xi’s regime thinks gas-free and hybrid cars will secure more of the market in the near future. Still, 2025 is right around the corner, and the entire Chinese automobile market is poised to decline for the third year in a row. Moreover, China has cut subsidies for EVs, which are often more expensive than alternatives. This may lead to a growth in hybrid sales, which are relatively less expensive, or have other effects. The Chinese market is also overcrowded. CSIS analysts estimate that there are more than 400 EV producers vying for sales in a market that isn’t nearly big enough to support that many competitors, so some pruning will likely occur in the coming years. All of which is to say that forecasting sales is a tricky business. 

Still, Evanina highlighted some of the ways China is trying to extend its dominance within the EV market. The Chinese government has employed “non-traditional” collectors to steal trade secrets from Apple, Ford, and General Motors, dating all the way back to 2011. In addition, China has used joint ventures with Western companies to extend its access to technology and gain access to the American market. 

“How to Steal an Airplane.” 

That was the title of one slide in Evanina’s presentation detailing China’s development of the C919 passenger jet. Drawing on research originally performed by the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, the slide documented how China acquired many of the parts necessary to build a passenger airliner. The Chinese used hackers, spies and “legitimate partnerships.” 

The Chinese government allegedly directed the theft of aviation data and technologies used for wings, landing gear, engine components, weather radar, and electricity systems, among other essential components of an airliner. The Chinese government wants the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) to compete with the global industry leaders, Airbus and Boeing, by selling the C919 for a fraction of the price of their competitive jets. COMAC can afford to charge a much lower price, in part, because it hasn’t had to incur the same level of research and development (R&D) expenditures as its Western competitors. 

Thus far, Evanina explained, the C919 is still having technical difficulties, which limit its ability to gain traction in the market. But China’s goal is to undercut Western companies in the marketplace with their own aviation know-how.   

China’s corporate social credit system. 

The Chinese government is implementing an Orwellian social credit system in which citizens are scored based on their behaviors and face real consequences if their tallies lag behind. Bad scores can even lead to public shaming on the local television broadcast for something as simple as jaywalking. Of course, this authoritarian control mechanism is spooky. But it isn’t just an inward-facing control mechanism. 

In 2018, as Evanina pointed out, the Chinese government sent warnings to dozens of foreign airlines (including Delta, United, and American) demanding that their websites refer to Taiwan as part of China. If they refused, these companies would “suffer negative social credit ratings.” Evanina added: “Numerous American companies complied.” This is just one example of how American businesses are forced to compromise in order to access China’s massive market. 

China’s social credit system increasingly relies on artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the citizenry. It is no wonder, therefore, that the government wants to “control” AI to the extent it can. “Artificial intelligence is a vital driving force for a new round of technological revolution and industrial transformation,” Xi told the Chinese Politburo on Oct. 31, 2018. “China must control artificial intelligence and ensure it is securely kept in our own hands.”

China’s “Thousand Talents Plan.”

Listening to Evanina speak at CSIS you could tell this is a man who feels his Americanism in his bones—an excellent trait for an official responsible for ferreting out turncoats and other foreign agents. He spoke of defending the American and Western “ethos and culture,” as well as the “values and norms of the democratic world that we live in.” That vision is under threat today once again. 

In the postmodern, post-American world of the intelligentsia, such overt Americanism is at best quaint. Which is where China’s “Thousand Talents Plan” comes in. China has taken advantage of America’s permissive attitude toward foreign entanglements to recruit scientists and other leading thinkers at universities—men and women who can help Xi accomplish his great leap forward in terms of both technology and power. Moreover, some Chinese researchers are studying on American campuses in service of Xi’s authoritarian designs, and not as part of some good faith exchange of ideas. 

Of course, the Chinese government bristles at this accusation, claiming it is racist. Evanina effectively rebutted this charge, arguing that the U.S. government’s concerns are “fact-based,” not racially motivated. He pointed to recent cases involving American academics who lied about their work for the “Thousand Talents Plan.” 

One of them is Dr. Charles Lieber. By all accounts, Dr. Lieber is one of America’s top chemists—a leading nanoscientist with the type of talent that generated buzz about a possible Nobel prize. His skills, knowledge, and accomplishments earned him the prestigious chair of Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. A prolific author (his website lists more than 400 publications since 1984) and entrepreneur, the 60-year-old Dr. Lieber had made it in life, running a research group at Harvard that was amply funded. The Department of Defense (DOD) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) granted his eponymous effort more than $15,000,000 since 2008. As a recipient of that federal grant money, Lieber was required to disclose any “significant foreign financial conflicts of interest.” According to the Department of Justice, however, he failed to comply. 

Since 2011, Dr. Lieber has allegedly led something of a double research life, working as a “Strategic Scientist” for China’s Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and as a “contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan.” The latter work earned him a handsome sum of “$50,000 per month,” as well as “living expenses” amounting to $158,000 (presumably per year) and another “$1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT.” Lieber earned these fees by allegedly extending WUT’s influence and connections throughout the scientific community, “cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” WUT. Lieber allegedly misled Harvard, and by extension the NIH, about his work for the Chinese. 

On Jan. 28, the FBI arrested Dr. Lieber, charging him with lying about his Chinese ties. 

In the aftermath of Lieber’s arrest, Harvard’s dean of science, Christopher W. Stubbs told The Harvard Crimson that the university was “limited” in its ability to track such nefarious connections. Stubbs explained “the challenge that we face is the relationship between the government, the military, and institutions of higher education in China is structured differently than it is in this country.” 

That is the same warning America’s top law enforcement and counterintelligence officials made at the CSIS event last week. 

Dr. Lieber isn’t the first academic to be charged with lying about his participation in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan.” Nor, in all likelihood, will he be the last. 

In May 2019, the FBI arrested Turab Lookman, then 67, charging him with lying about his role in China’s brain drain scheme. In late January, Lookman, a former scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, pleaded guilty to lying to a counterintelligence investigator about his participation in the same program. A native of India, Lookman became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008. But after his arrest, some accounts indicated that he may be a citizen of as many as four nations. Prosecutors alleged that he had access to sensitive nuclear secrets, though his defense attorney accused the government of exaggerating its case. 

Late last year, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Florida was ensnared in controversy after “compliance violations” were discovered. According to the Tampa Bay Times, which first reported the story, some of the institute’s employees were recruited into the “Thousand Talents Plan,” causing a perceived conflict of interest. The institute’s CEO and others were forced to resign as a result. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Texas A&M discovered “more than 100” of it faculty members “were involved with a Chinese talent-recruitment program,” but “only five had disclosed their participation.”

There are likely still more revelations to come from America’s universities and colleges. 

As the New York Times reported, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), acting on information from the FBI, “sent 18,000 letters” in 2018 urging administrators who oversee government grants to be vigilant.” As a result, “[s]eventy-one institutions, including many of the most prestigious medical schools in the United States, are now investigating 180 individual cases involving potential theft of intellectual property.” 

The FBI has evidently sent universities a written warning of sorts, too. You can read the FBI’s “China: The Risk to Academia” on Penn State’s website.  

Evanina explained that the threat doesn’t just come from Americans looking to cash in on China’s largesse. Xi has instructed Chinese patriots to study abroad while serving his regime. 

On Jan. 28, a federal arrest warrant was issued for Yanqing Ye, a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who allegedly hid her military career from American authorities while studying at Boston University’s Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Biomedical Engineering. Ye portrayed herself as a “student,” and did not tell immigration officials that she worked for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), “a top military academy” in China, according to the Department of Justice. Ye returned to China, but she is now one of the FBI’s Most Wanted, as she stands accused of serving the PLA while attending BU from October 2017 to April 2019. During that timeframe she allegedly completed “numerous assignments” on behalf of the PLA, including “assessing United States military websites,” and sending United States documents and information to China.

Spies and citizens vs. spies.

The spy world is often romanticized in works of fiction, with super spies competing with one another for supremacy. But the granular details of China’s campaign of espionage against the U.S. are hardly romantic. And as Evanina stressed, U.S. spies can’t tackle the Chinese threat alone. Xi Jinping’s campaign is aimed at multiple layers of American society. To emphasize the cost to American citizens, Evanina cited an estimate indicating that the “theft of trade secrets, counterfeit goods and pirated software costs our nation between $225 and $600 billion a year,” or about $4,000 to $6,000 per American family annually. The FBI uses the same statistic in its memo to academia.   

Evanina also reminded his audience that U.S. military officials have already warned that their supply chains are likely compromised by the Chinese. “The systems the U.S. relies upon to mobilize, deploy, and sustain forces have been extensively targeted by potential adversaries, and compromised to such extent that their reliability is questionable,” the Cybersecurity Readiness Review prepared for the secretary of the Navy in March 2019 reads. That same report warned that America’s military advantages had eroded alongside a “growing decline in [America’s] economic advantage.”

It’s a warning the NCSC head has sought to amplify. Evanina told the audience at CSIS that Americans have “have to look at economic security as part of national security.” The question is: Are Americans listening? 

Photograph of Chinese rocket launchers at a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China at Tiananmen Square by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

Why We Still Need to Worry About Al-Qaeda

Let's start in Pensacola, Florida.

Welcome to the fourth issue of Vital Interests. In our first three newsletters, I’ve focused on the “Great Power Competition” (GPC) between the U.S. and China. But I want to turn today to a topic that I’ve spent nearly two decades focused on: al-Qaeda and the war on jihadism.

I’m writing this before President Trump’s State of the Union speech. But I’m willing to wager there is not much, if anything, concerning al-Qaeda in it. We are in one of those periods when the political class isn’t chattering much about terrorism. Those moments are fleeting and offer false comfort.

And in my view, a few events warrant closer scrutiny. Let’s begin with the terrorist attack in Pensacola, Florida, late last year.

An al-Qaeda sleeper agent? 

On the morning of December 6, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani (Al-Shamrani) of the Royal Saudi Air Force walked into a building at Naval Air Station Pensacola and opened fire. Three U.S. sailors were killed and eight more Americans were wounded. More still would have perished if not for the heroic actions of Marines and sailors who jumped into the fray to help their fellow countrymen. Two unarmed Marines even attempted to confront Shamrani with a fire extinguisher. The Saudi terrorist was shot dead by deputies from the local sheriff’s department, which quickly dispatched personnel to the scene.

Within hours, evidence surfaced showing that Shamrani’s shooting rampage was likely more than just some fit of anger. He was active on social media, including Twitter, and left behind a disturbing digital trail. 

On September 11 of last year, for instance, he posted on social media that “the countdown has begun.” A number of his tweets demonstrated jihadist leanings. As SITE Intelligence Group first reported, he posted a three-page “will” that denounced America for supposedly leading a global campaign against Muslims. At the end of his farewell, Shamrani paraphrased a notorious threat from Osama bin Laden, who swore that Americans wouldn’t be safe until the Palestinians lived in security and the U.S. retreated from all Muslim lands. (In reality, while al-Qaeda likes to use the Palestinian cause for rhetorical purposes, the group has had little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

Shamrani also visited the 9/11 Memorial the weekend after Thanksgiving. In light of the events that followed, it is likely that this wasn’t to pay his respects to al-Qaeda’s victims, but instead to celebrate the mass murderers.    

While this evidence alone demonstrated Shamrani’s jihadist sympathies, there was nothing in the public record to suggest that he was working for al-Qaeda or another terrorist organization. That is, until February 2, when Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video declaring its “full responsibility” for Shamrani’s act of terror.

The AQAP video features the group’s leader, Qasim al-Raymi, who boasted that Shamrani was, in effect, a sleeper agent. “For several years, our hero [Shamrani] moved between several U.S. military bases in America to select and contemplate his best and fattest target,” Raymi claimed. “Allah bestowed him great patience, and due to the Grace of Him alone, he passed all the military tests and all the security procedures.” 

Raymi portrayed Shamrani as one in a line of other terrorists who were either inspired or directed by AQAP, including the 2009 Fort Hood Shooter, the failed Christmas Day 2009 bomber, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers. Raymi claimed that more terrorists are on their way and asked Muslims to honor the memory of the “courageous knight”—Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani. 

AQAP’s production doesn’t provide concrete evidence that Shamrani was known to the group before his day of terror. It is possible that this is an opportunistic claim, as AQAP has been trying to steal the limelight back from its ISIS rivals. AQAP first mass-marketed the idea of lone or individual jihad in 2010, but ISIS took this concept to a new level—inspiring or directing far more small-scale attacks around the globe since 2014. AQAP, which rejected the religious legitimacy of ISIS’s caliphate and has been fighting its Yemeni arm, is clearly cognizant of this fact. In 2017, Raymi himself implored followers to carry out “simple” attacks on behalf of his cause.    

Then again, it is possible that Shamrani was indeed an AQAP sleeper agent. Two American counterterrorism officials I spoke with indicated that they think there is, in fact, more to Shamrani’s story. Which raises a simple question: Are more sleepers already here?

In the aftermath of the shooting in Pensacola, some reports suggested that Shamrani hadn’t acted alone, but was instead assisted by some of his fellow Saudi cadets. All of them were taking part in a joint training program the U.S. hosts for its allies. Some accounts indicated that other Saudis in the program filmed the shooting, presumably to celebrate the footage at a later date. According to the Department of Justice, this was not the case. Instead, the Saudis began recording at the scene only after the Americans scrambled to provide assistance to the victims. Apparently, they weren’t in on it. 

On Jan. 13, Attorney General William P. Barr announced “there was no evidence” showing that any of Shamrani’s comrades had assisted him or had “pre-knowledge of the attack.”  Still, the Trump administration clearly found some troubling information.

Barr explained that 21 Saudi cadets had been “dis-enrolled” from the U.S. military training curriculum and would be returned to their home country. Of these, 17 “had social media” accounts containing “some jihadi or anti-American content.” Fifteen of the 21 Saudis (including of some of those 17) also “had some kind of contact with child pornography.” And one of the 15 “had a significant number of such images.” 

The Saudis and the Americans agreed that this was unseemly behavior. But none of the Saudis were charged with any crime. They merely couldn’t stay in the U.S. We may never know anything more about them.  

We are still left with some troubling questions about Shamrani—namely, was he communicating with AQAP or any other al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists overseas? The answer may be locked in Shamrani’s iPhones.

In January, Barr publicly asked Apple to unlock Shamrani’s phones, which are encrypted. Apple has thus far refused, arguing that the company has provided investigators with vital information extracted from the cloud and breaking the phones’ encryption would open the door for authoritarian governments, such as China and Russia, to do the same, but for their own nefarious anti-democratic purposes. The government ran into a similar hurdle with Apple after the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, when the terrorist couple responsible left behind encrypted communications. Apple refused to crack the phones’ security for the FBI, but the government found a private company that was willing and able to do so, thereby ending the standoff. 

The issue here is that Shamrani may have been communicating with bad actors via encrypted end-to-end applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Both of those apps are among the jihadists’ favorites. 

In the course of my own work, I follow hundreds of terrorist channels on Telegram—a popular app that can be downloaded on your phone or computer. Raymi’s video claiming “full responsibility” for Shamrani’s terror was posted on several Telegram channels. That’s one way I downloaded it. The public-facing Telegram channels are just one part of the counterterrorism problem. We still don’t know if Shamrani was using Telegram, or another platform, to communicate overseas.  

Is AQAP’s leader dead?

Qasim al-Raymi, the AQAP leader who claimed responsibility for the Pensacola shooting, may already be dead. The CIA reportedly targeted Raymi in a drone strike in January. There are rumors on jihadist social media channels that he is dead, but AQAP hasn’t confirmed it yet. Neither has the U.S. government—officially, that is. 

On January 31, President Trump retweeted some accounts saying that Raymi had perished in the American bombing. If true, then this is the first time the U.S. government has announced a senior terrorist’s death via retweet.

Although he was only in his early 40s, Raymi was (or is) an al-Qaeda veteran. His terrorist career began in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, when Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants identified him as a promising young recruit with leadership potential. Despite being a young man in his 20s, al-Qaeda appointed him to serve as a trainer at the infamous al-Farouq camp, where some of the 9/11 hijackers were trained. He fled Afghanistan after 9/11, making his way to his native Yemen. Raymi was eventually arrested after he was implicated in a plot to assassinate the U.S. ambassador. 

In 2006, Raymi escaped from prison alongside more than 20 of his comrades. Some of these men helped rebuild AQAP. After 9/11, Osama bin Laden ordered his men to launch an insurgency inside the Saudi Kingdom. This was a disastrous move for the jihadists, as the Saudis crushed the first iteration of AQAP, forcing many of its surviving members to flee south on the Arabian Peninsula, to Yemen. 

Raymi was part of a small cohort responsible for relaunching AQAP. In January 2009, he appeared in a video announcing AQAP’s rebirth. In that same video, two of his comrades explained that they were fighting to build a new Islamic caliphate. That remains AQAP’s principal goal to this day. Although many Western counterterrorism analysts came to believe that al-Qaeda was only interested in attacking America, or Europe, that was never really the case. Well before the rise of ISIS in 2014, al-Qaeda was telling its followers that one day they would reclaim Islam’s glory under the banner of a powerful, united caliphate. This empire remains a distant dream, but AQAP is seeking to build an Islamic emirate in Yemen and then Saudi Arabia, hoping to one day connect this state with other emirates in an Islamic empire. 

U.S. officials have implicated Raymi in a string of plots against the West, including the failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009. That attack was carried out by a young Nigerian recruit wearing an underwear bomb, which fizzled. 

It is likely that Raymi played a leadership role not just in AQAP, but also in al-Qaeda’s global management team. So, if Raymi is dead, it’d be a significant blow. But it isn’t a mortal wound for the group, as there are other al-Qaeda veterans in Yemen and elsewhere who are capable of picking up the banner. New reports underscore the ongoing threat. 

United Nations warns al-Qaeda is very much alive.

It’s 2020 and we are still talking about al-Qaeda. Why? The short answer is this: Al-Qaeda has always been, first and foremost, an insurgency organization. Terrorism is one tactic the group uses to achieve its long-term goal: The resurrection of an Islamic caliphate. Even though al-Qaeda hasn’t been able to carry out another 9/11-style attack in the U.S., the group is still killing an awful lot of people around the globe. Al-Qaeda has thousands—yes, at least thousands—of dedicated fighters waging jihad on its behalf. And some of them can be tasked with terrorist attacks in the West. 

In late January, the United Nations monitoring team responsible for tracking the jihadists reported that al-Qaeda “remains resilient and increasingly threatening,” despite suffering setbacks. Al-Qaeda’s regional arms are actually “stronger” than ISIS “in many conflict zones.” 

It’s true: al-Qaeda has insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, East and West Africa, Yemen, and Syria, as well as smaller organizations elsewhere. Their goal is to overturn the existing political order in their designated geographic region, and then install their draconian version of Islamic law (sharia), which would be administered by Islamic emirates. In their imagined future, these constituent states would join up in a new caliphate. 

This isn’t happening any time soon. Al-Qaeda’s global insurgency is impeded by many roadblocks. And there’s no question that other American foes, such as the Chinese, are far more powerful. But after all these years, al-Qaeda is still very much alive. 

Here are three other highlights from the U.N.’s report:

  • Al-Qaeda’s relations with the Taliban “continue to be close and mutually beneficial,” as al-Qaeda provides its long-time blood brothers with “resources and training in exchange for protection.” In September, one of the most senior al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan was killed in a Taliban stronghold, where he and others were protected by the Taliban’s “shadow governor.” Why does this matter? Well, as I explained in a separate piece for The Dispatch, the Trump administration has pitched a deal with the Taliban in which the group would be America’s de facto counterterrorism partner after supposedly cutting off its ties to al-Qaeda. The State Department hasn’t explained how this could be verified. Moreover, months after the Taliban provided the State Department with its proposed counterterrorism assurances, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups remain deeply embedded within the Taliban. Indeed, al-Qaeda is fighting to resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The U.N.’s new report is just the latest piece of evidence along these lines. Contrary to the prospective deal Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has endorsed, the U.N. warns that the al-Qaeda-affiliated foreign jihadists fighting under the Taliban’s banner “pose a long-term global threat.”

  • Al-Qaeda has thousands of fighters in northwestern Syria and some of them continue to pose a threat to the West, but the war may have them boxed in for now. Syria’s Idlib province “remains dominated by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda,” the U.N. monitoring team reports, and some of these “elements” want “to plan and execute international attacks.” However, their terrorist ambitions are likely “curtailed both by the military pressure they are under and by al-Qaeda’s reluctance to resource such activity.” Al-Qaeda has encountered a lot of problems in Syria. Its initial goal was to lay the groundwork for an Islamic emirate after Bashar al-Assad’s regime was toppled. Now the jihadists are clinging to territory as Assad and his foreign allies, the Russians and Iranians, pummel Idlib province.  

  • Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, Shabaab, continues to lay the groundwork for its own Islamic emirate in Somalia. The fledgling government of Somalia, backed by the U.S. and other allies, is holding Shabaab at bay—for now. But the group remains prolific. And according to the UN’s monitoring team, Shabaab operates an “elaborate taxation system” while extorting cash from local businesses and telecommunications companies. The largest telecom in the area is “expected to remit about $200,000 per month.”

There is much more in the U.N.’s report, including additional details concerning ISIS—which broke off from al-Qaeda and became its most significant jihadist rival. The U.N. report shouldn’t be treated as Gospel truth. Not all of it rings true to me, but much of it does. The three parts I highlighted above are all corroborated by other evidence. 

The U.S. government wants to focus on “Great Power Competition” (GPC)—not the 9/11 wars, meaning those conflicts unleashed by al-Qaeda’s deadliest day and its aftermath.

While there’s much to be said for GPC, there is a persistent terrorist threat. How the U.S. manages it is up for debate. In future editions of Vital Interests, I’m going to tackle the rhetoric surrounding America’s “endless wars.” While there is plenty to criticize about the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, I think this phrasing is deceptive. It implies that the 9/11 wars are purely a function of America’s policies (some of which have exacerbated the terrorist problem), but doesn’t say anything about the terrorists, or their capacity for violence. In other words, we should always remember that the enemy gets a vote—just not in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.   

Why We Need to Worry About China and 5G

The Chinese have taken the lead on this important technology while also building a surveillance state. What could go wrong?

Dear reader,

I’ve spent the past several days reading up on 5G wireless technology and its implications for the “Great Power Competition” (GPC) between the U.S. and China. On Tuesday, the U.K. government decided, against the wishes of the U.S., to allow China to play a role in developing its 5G networks. That’s a big deal. 

While this may not have been a full-fledged battle in the GPC era, it was a skirmish. The U.S. and the Trump administration lost. The British will reportedly limit the market share of Huawei, one of China’s main manufacturers, and also restrict its products to industries that aren’t security sensitive. But still, Huawei is being allowed into the U.K.’s burgeoning 5G networks despite some dramatic warnings from U.S. officials and elected representatives. 

“Can you imagine a situation where, in the '80s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have a conversation and they say, 'You know, I think we should have the KGB come and build all of our telecommunications and computer network systems because they're offering a great discount',” President Trump's deputy national security adviser, Matthew Pottinger, recently said.

Pottinger’s warning was echoed by Republican Reps. Mike Gallagher and Liz Cheney. Cheney blasted Boris Johnson, the new prime minister of the U.K., for choosing China’s “surveillance state over the special relationship.”

The U.S. warned the British that allowing Huawei to gain traction in its 5G networks may compromise intelligence sharing across the “Five Eyes” nations. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States comprise the “Five Eyes” network, which allows for special coordination on extremely sensitive signals and other intelligence. 

The economic appeal of 5G—and Huawei’s equipment—was so strong that Johnson concluded the security risks are worth it. But the economic and security issues here are closely linked, inseparable really. 

Before I delve in, I’d like to offer a warning of sorts. I am not a techie. At all. I’m closer to a walking, talking EMP (electromagnetic pulse) device than an actual expert on technology. 

When I told my wife that I planned to write about computers and 5G wireless this week she immediately looked confused. “Why? You…know that isn’t really your thing,” she said.  She’s right. It’s been our running joke for years—computers and phones tend to do the opposite of what I want them to do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone in technical support say something like, “I’ve never seen that before.” It’s a minor miracle that my computer wasn’t infected with a virus while writing this. 

All of which is to say that if you are technologically inclined, then forgive my amateurish attempt to make sense of 5G. I’m not going to pretend to understand the technical aspects, but I’ve tried to distill the broader economic and national security issues surrounding its emergence.  

What is 5G?

You’ve probably seen multiple wireless carriers advertising their new and improved 5G network. Not long ago it was all about 4G, now it’s 5G. Each of the wireless companies has the best coverage, or the fastest, or they are No. 1 in some category we are supposed to care about. It’s all very confusing. But they have color maps, and that’s supposed to make us want it. 5G is the best and we are Americans, so we want the best! Or the fastest, or the best coverage, or something.

What, exactly, is 5G? Well, for starters, it isn’t one thing. The “G” obviously stands for generation, as in a generation of wireless technology. As with any human generation, there is variability across the population. But there are some commonalities, too.  The global mobile industry first announced its standard for 5G NR (“New Radio”) in December 2017 and then tinkered with that standard in the months that followed. 5G NR is just one of many acronyms the industry uses. It’s somewhat maddening. By the time I was finished reading several papers on 5G I was pining for my days studying Latin.  

Just as humans evolve across generations, so, too, does wireless technology. I don’t want to press the comparison too far, however, because while there have been relatively minor changes in the human genome that are perceptible as far back as anyone can remember in living history, wireless technology is evolving at a breakneck pace right before our eyes. 

Beginning around 1980, 1G was the technological standard for analog cell phones—those big, clunky devices that we all laugh about now, but status-seekers and social climbers flashed throughout the 1980s. 2G, introduced about a decade later in the early 1990s, brought with it the era of digital cellular technology, including data services. We could now text one another. 3G was a much faster digital architecture. Apple introduced the first iPhone in June 2007, taking advantage of much improved 3G networks, and thus began the era of smart phones. 3G allowed software developers to offer many of the apps we’ve come to use in our daily lives. 

We are living in a predominantly 4G world. Wireless carriers began pushing their 4G devices in 2010 and 2011, though there was some sleight-of-hand involved as highly evolved 3G technologies could be considered 4G for marketing purposes at first. (Again, the various digital Gs form a continuum, as one evolves into the next.) 4G technology (LTE) allowed for even more data-intense apps, such as Snapchat and Uber, to become popular. 4G meant data could be shared at a much faster rate.  

If you believe the hype, 5G will mark a sea change—a leap forward that goes well beyond 4G. It will speed up data transfers, enhance storage capacity, increase security and reduce latency (that is, the time it takes for a computer to do what you tell it to do). We will witness the era of driverless cars and trucks, which are already being tested. Artificial intelligence will transform entire industries, ranging from food and beverage to health care. 5G will lead to more sophisticated weaponry, including hypersonic ones. 

And there’s something called the “Internet of Things,” which basically sounds like the beginning of a horror movie. It’s the common digital architecture that connects household appliances and other inanimate objects to computers, databases, and devices in one big web. The movie the machines will make about this in the year 2050, when we are all dead, will begin: “And then the microwaves had enough of their masters.” I’m kidding, obviously. (But not really. Come to think of it, my EMP deficiency may actually be a Neo-style gift. Stay by my side, and we’ll stop the machines.) 

To think of it in terms of a comic book: the evolution from 1G to 5G is akin to us mere Homo sapiens giving way to mutants in less than two generations. You and I are 1G. Charles Xavier and his X-Men are 5G.   

While all of the major wireless carriers have launched 5G here in the states, you are probably still using 4G technology. My wife and I recently upgraded to Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro Max, but it’s still 4G. I didn’t realize this until I started doing research for this newsletter. We live fairly close to New York City—no 5G yet. Naturally, my wife is doing all sorts of neat tricks with the phone’s three cameras, while I’m happy to report that I’ve almost figured out how to answer all calls. (This, sadly, is not a joke. For some reason, the phone sometimes fights me on this. Don’t judge me.)  

Bottom line: For all of the hoopla surrounding 5G, it is going to take some time for that technology to proliferate. Still, the 5G future will be here before you know it. The next wave of 5G apps is expected sometime in 2021 or 2022. 

Why does 5G competition matter for Americans? 

Americans should be concerned about China’s aggressive expansionist plans for 5G. Here are some reasons why.

As explained in this excellent report published by the Defense Innovation Board last year, there are very strong first-mover advantages for countries and companies that set up shop early. Those advantages include significant economic growth and new jobs, as well as the ability to set standards for an entire ecosystem of technologies, thereby making the rest of the world follow them. 

Europe was ahead of the pack in the 2G era and Japan led the early 3G world. It took years for the U.S. to catch up. When the U.S. finally did—after investing significant time and resources—Americans dominated 4G. 

According to estimates prepared by Recon Analytics, America’s global 4G leadership accounted for nearly $100 billion in GDP growth by 2016, approximately $125 billion in additional revenue for American companies and another $40 billion in additional app store revenue. In addition, the “launch of 4G in the US increased total wireless-related jobs by 84% from 2011 to 2014.” 

That’s real money and those are real jobs for Americans. 

But the U.S. isn’t leading the 5G field. China is. 

The Chinese have already rolled out 5G capacity across 40 to 50 cities, and they’re looking to add more shortly. The Chinese may be poised to accrue the economic benefits of first-mover status, and also get to shape the playing field itself. That wouldn’t be such a big problem if China behaved more like modern-day Germany or Japan—two countries that were early victors in the 2G and 3G eras, respectively. But China is very different. The Chinese are building an internal surveillance state, while also seeking to undermine America’s global leadership across the board. 

“Great Power Competition” will take place on a number of fronts. Not only is 5G a key battlespace on its own, it touches many of the others as well. 

What is China’s plan?

China’s plan for 5G dominance is built on two broad pillars, one domestic and the other foreign. 

Domestically, the Chinese government has taken steps to ensure that its 5G ecosystem is largely standalone—that is, China’s 5G won’t depend on outside help or technology. This is part of the government’s “Made in China 2025” (MIC 2025) plan. 

In a 2017 report, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce summarized what MIC 2025 means for wireless communication equipment and related technologies, the next generation of the Internet, as well as high performance computers and servers. Within China’s borders, Chinese firms are on a path to have the dominant market shares (not 100 percent, but upward of 80 percent) in each of the key 5G-related areas. This limits the potential sales for foreign competitors in China’s massive marketplace. China has also required foreign cellular providers to enter into joint ventures, thereby ensuring that the government remains in the driver’s seat. 

Months before the first 5G standard was finalized in December 2017, the equity research team at Jefferies estimated that China’s three main telecommunications companies—China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom—were going to spend upward of $180 billion on 5G infrastructure over seven years. This sum dwarfs China’s investment in 4G, an indication of the importance Xi Jinping’s regime is placing on the matter. And as the South China Morning Postfirst reported, it also dwarfs the amount Japan, China’s main Asian rival, is anticipated to spend on 5G.    

As of mid-2019, according to the Chinese government, there were 1.24 billion users on 4G networks inside the country. Even though 4G-related sales have been declining, that gives you a sense of the size of the market. The U.S. consumer market is far, far smaller. Some analysts are predicting a surge in 5G-related sales in China this year. 

Because China controls a massive market of its own, it hopes to tilt the 5G playing field in its direction right from the go. Companies around the world want access to China’s marketplaces, but they’ll have to play by China’s 5G rules to get it.   

In terms of foreign sales, Huawei and ZTE are the two main Chinese companies seeking to gain market share. Their smartphones aren’t popular in the U.S., and the Trump administration has taken steps to restrict the sale of other Chinese equipment. But the two Chinese companies have significant sales in Europe and elsewhere. 

Huawei bragged last year that two-thirds of 5G networks outside of China use its equipment, either entirely or in part. The Chinese companies provide low cost solutions of reasonable to high quality, making it difficult for even America’s staunchest allies to turn down. When Huawei isn’t wooing customers with lower prices, the company allegedly uses other tactics. Randall Stephenson, the cief executive of AT&T Inc., warned last year that Huawei is using sales of 4G related technologies to lock in customers. “If you have deployed Huawei as your 4G network, Huawei is not allowing interoperability to 5G — meaning if you are 4G, you are stuck with Huawei for 5G,” Stephenson claimed.

I noted above that 5G isn’t one thing. The Defense Innovation Board report points to an important explanation for why this is the case—and it is crucial for understanding the competition between the U.S. and China. 

Basically, there are two main ways you can deploy 5G technologies across the cellular spectrum. Companies can use what’s known as the “sub-6 mid-band” spectrum, or “mmWave.” As the name implies, “sub-6” refers to frequency bands that are lower than 6 Ghz on the radio spectrum, while “mmWave” refers to a much higher range going up to 300 Ghz. 

Both “sub-6” and “mmWave” have their advantages and disadvantages. Some leading American companies argue (quite logically) that “mmWave’s” faster speeds are necessary to reap the full benefits of 5G. But there are problems. For starters, “mmWaves” are more easily blocked—buildings, trees, and even the human body can get in the way. Right now, you have to be in an open-air area like a sports stadium to make it truly work. This means that the U.S. will have to spend considerable sums of money to build a 5G infrastructure that relies on “mmWave.” 

Meanwhile, “sub-6” waves are much easier to send and receive over greater distances. The infrastructure is already in place around the world, as 4G and other lesser technologies are already using it. The Defense Innovation Board pointed to yet another problem: The U.S. federal government controls “large swaths of the sub-6 bands,” mainly for the military, so they are “not available for civil/commercial use.” This means that private industry inside the U.S. cannot aggressively pursue a “sub-6” strategy to counter China’s designs. 

While it looks as though 5G will end up relying on both “sub-6” and “mmWave,” the Chinese enjoy a major structural advantage in that they are not limited. They can push ahead with 5G technologies in the “sub-6” spectrum without worrying about the unique hindrances faced by American companies. 

This allows China to gobble up market share in other foreign countries, which also do not have restrictions on their “sub-6” spectrum, while the U.S. is left to hope that “mmWave” capabilities improve faster than expected. The Defense Innovation Board also recommended that the U.S. government open access to the “sub-6” band, so that private enterprise can do its thing.    

Significant security liabilities.

The discussion above focuses mainly on the economics of 5G competition. Of course, there are major security liabilities. The Defense Department is worried that as it relies on more commercial technology, Chinese-made components will compromise its supply chain. This is especially concerning if much of the rest of the world follows China in the “sub-6 5G ecosystem,” which the U.S. isn’t well-positioned to lead, let alone control. There are ongoing concerns about poor software design, or outright malfeasance—with the Chinese hiding backdoors for espionage and cybertheft. 

The threat of backdoors extends to 5G devices, including cell phones, which are major sellers overseas. “Evidence of backdoors or security vulnerabilities have been discovered in a variety of devices globally,” the Defense Innovation Board’s report reads. “Many of these seem to be related to requirements from the Chinese intelligence community pressuring companies to exfiltrate information about domestic users.” 

Such backdoors have been found in handsets and camera software. The Chinese government wants such capabilities to spy on its own people, but there’s nothing to stop Chinese intelligence from repurposing these traps once they are sold around the globe.

These are just some of the reasons the Trump administration implored Boris Johnson to keep Huawei out. He let them in anyway. The fact that U.S. diplomacy failed here raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the State Department. Johnson’s decision will have major implications for the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. and, undoubtedly, for the future of 5G.

Photograph by Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images.

The Good, the Bad, and the Never-Going-to-Happen of the China Trade Deal

Plus, who’s in charge of ISIS these days?

In this week’s issue of Vital Interests, we’ll discuss the Trump administration’s trade agreement with China, the Islamic State’s mysterious new leader, and the Pentagon’s desire to withdraw from Africa. This is an eclectic issue list, but to me, at least, it makes some sense. As I outlined in the first issue, the U.S. government is trying to pivot away from the 9/11 wars in the name of “great power competition”—never mind that much of that transition has already occurred.    

On a personal note, you should know that I worked as an economist for more than a decade. Even though I’ve published articles since 2004, I haven’t written about economic issues at all. My public-facing work has been focused almost entirely on counterterrorism and security-related issues. Steve Hayes has encouraged me to delve into economics in this newsletter. So, if you don’t like what I have to say about President Trump’s trade deal with China, it’s Steve’s fault. You can let him know about it on Twitter. Or via email. Or by harassing Jonah Goldberg because he is obviously complicit in this, too.  

A “landmark” trade agreement with China?
On Jan. 15, the White House announced the “historic” trade deal between the U.S. and China. Trump picked a fight with the Chinese early on in his administration, and he is claiming victory on behalf of the “American worker.” The agreement is “phase one” in a proposed two-step reckoning between the globe’s two largest economic powers. How successful has Trump’s trade war been? Well, it’s mixed.  

President Trump used tariffs as a blunt negotiating instrument, taxing Chinese imports in order to create leverage at the bargaining table. Although the administration claims China pays the tariffs, there is ample evidence showing that the reality is quite different. In a research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research last year, three economists found “that the full incidence of the tariff falls on domestic consumers”—that is, Americans. And when foreign countries retaliate, their citizens bear the brunt of the tariffs as well, leading to lower real incomes across the board. Other studies have similarly found that the cost of Trump’s tariffs has fallen largely on American consumers and corporations. For example, one study found that the price of household washing machines rose 12 percent as a result of the tariffs in 2018. So did the price of dryers, even though they were not directly targeted by the tariffs, because they are a complementary good and, therefore, the sale price of both items is closely linked. This wasn’t so good for American workers.

As has been widely reported, though some of the Trump administration’s tariffs will be slashed, most of them remain in effect, as do China’s retaliatory measures. The administration has placed tariffs on more than $350 billion in Chinese goods, but those won’t be fully lifted until a “phase two” deal is reached. When that will be is anyone’s guess, and it might not happen at all. In addition, several key issues, such as the Chinese government’s subsidization of some industries, have been left for the second stage. It is doubtful that China’s authoritarian regime will relinquish control over companies deemed crucially important for its national security agenda. 

Still, the “phase one” agreement addresses some prominent issues and I think President Trump and his advisers deserve credit for pressing them. Let’s discuss some of these issues here. Keep in mind that the Trump administration sought to renegotiate basically the entire economic relationship between the U.S. and China. These were intended to be structural negotiations—not just tit-for-tat talks concerning this-or-that tariff. 

China implicitly concedes wrongdoing.
Much of the deal is focused on America’s longstanding grievances concerning China’s willful disregard for property rights. Although China won’t say so directly or publicly, Xi Jinping’s regime essentially conceded its own culpability in a number of areas, ranging from infringing patents and stealing intellectual property to forcing the transfer of sensitive technologies by companies seeking to gain access to China’s enormous market. 

The negotiators addressed one U.S. complaint after another, spelling out remedies that were aimed at China’s behavior. Time and again the resulting text in multiple sections reads: “The United States affirms that existing U.S. measures afford treatment equivalent to that provided for in this Article.” Or something similar to that. In other words, American laws and customs already afford the types of protections the U.S. wants China to offer foreign companies—but hasn’t.

As I was reading through the intellectual property section of the agreement, I was reminded of the fake Apple stores that proliferated throughout China. They looked like real Apple storefronts, with real Apple employees and products that were indistinguishable from the genuine items. But these retail shops were knock-offs. After the practice was exposed in the press, the Chinese government shut down multiple locations, including 22 fake Apple stores in the city of Kunming alone. Still, copyright and trademark infringement, as well as the blatant stealing of technology, are commonplace in China. Sometimes this has been due to lax enforcement. In other matters, such as in the case of Micron, the Chinese government has allegedly orchestrated the thievery. 

The Chinese behaviors outlined in the text of the deal are far-ranging, affecting numerous industries. To take just one other example, the deal addresses concerns over “counterfeit pharmaceutical and related products,” laying out three actions the Chinese have agreed to take. This includes the production of a published list of “enforcement measures, including seizures, revocations of business licenses, fines, and other actions” aimed at curbing counterfeit products. The very next line reads: “The United States affirms that existing U.S. measures afford effective and expeditious action against counterfeit pharmaceutical and related products.”

Again, it is difficult to read this as anything other than an admission by the Chinese. 

However, while some provisions appear to be specific, others are vague. The U.S. wants China to allow firms to more easily challenge intellectual property disputes, but it remains to be seen if the Chinese legal system will be accommodating. This all comes down to China’s willingness to really play fair and the U.S. government’s ability to enforce the concessions offered on paper. 

The big banks and other financial institutions like it. 
JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon lauded the deal shortly after it was announced. His bank, the largest in the U.S. in terms of assets, has encountered numerous obstacles when trying to expand its businesses throughout China. Dimon quickly concluded that the deal presents a new opening.The Chinese “want JPMorgan to be there to help set transparency and standards and rules,” Dimon said during an interview with FOX Business’s Maria Bartiromo. He added that “the Chinese need, they want to eliminate corruption, have efficient companies and capital allocation, and they need very good financial markets.” 

To my ear, Dimon’s take is a bit too rosy. (And I don’t understand why JPMorgan is no longer J.P. Morgan. I’m just not that hip.) Still, Dimon’s confidence is telling—he obviously sees the deal as a potential boon. 

JPMorgan Chase isn’t the only big firm that is likely to benefit under the deal. Credit card companies—Mastercard, Visa and American Express—have had trouble expanding their client base due to Chinese restrictions. All three companies are explicitly named in the accord (see page 4-2), and the Chinese will supposedly expedite credit applications that were previously ensnared in a murky process that effectively stymied their businesses. Other industries, such as those focused on distressed debt and insurance, will supposedly enjoy more unfettered market access as well. 

But again, enforcement is key. 

On paper, China agrees to stop forcing technology transfers. 
For good reasons, the Trump administration has made a big deal out of China’s forced technology transfers. The Chinese have strong-armed American and other foreign companies to turn over key technologies just to do business. They’ve done this by restricting foreign investments to those companies willing to play ball, enforcing joint venture requirements in which Chinese companies retain control, and using China’s deep bureaucratic state to abuse administrative and licensing processes. For a comprehensive summary of how this works, see this seminal March 2018 paper by the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office. It explains why the Trump administration has pressed China on this issue.

Taken at face value, the new trade deal says this practice is a thing of the past. “Any transfer or licensing of technology” is to be “based on market terms that are voluntary and reflect mutual agreement.” Neither side “shall require or pressure persons … to transfer technology to its persons in relation to acquisitions, joint ventures, or other investment transactions.”

On the surface, this sounds like a strong development. But according to the office of the U.S. trade representative , the Chinese government has “committed not to use technology transfer as a condition for market access and to permit technology transfer decisions to be negotiated independently by businesses” on “at least eight occasions since 2010.” 

Obviously, the Chinese didn’t mean it. It isn’t at all clear how the U.S. will enforce China’s commitment now. This could very well be a Lucy-and-the-football type of situation.

China agrees to buy $200 billion more in American goods and services. 
You can expect to hear President Trump boast about this provision repeatedly in the coming months. China has agreed to purchase $200 billion more in American “manufactured goods, agricultural goods, energy products, and services” by the end of 2021. This figure is in comparison to the “2017 baseline amount”—that is the amount of Chinese imports from the U.S. before Trump’s trade war. 

Given the negative effects of the tariffs of American consumers and businesses, it is dubious that this $200 billion is a real windfall. While some will undoubtedly benefit, does the Chinese commitment outweigh the foregone sales and increased consumer prices over the past two years? That seems doubtful. 

Still, the agreement does loosen restrictions of various agricultural products (meat, poultry, dairy, among others), baby formula, and other goods. That is a win for American producers. 

In sum, the Trump administration is raising key issues that are vital to American interests. And the administration has advanced those interests in some ways, even if Trump’s tactics leave much to be desired. But as the cursory summary above should make clear, trade policy is incredibly complex and it would be foolish to assume that all of the issues discussed in the agreement have been put to bed.     

Who is the Islamic State’s new leader and does it matter?
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s first supposed caliph, blew himself up during U.S. raid in late October 2019. In the months since then, there has been some ambiguity regarding the identity of his successor. 

Baghdadi’s diehards quickly named their new caliph, identifying him by an alias: Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The Islamic State’s followers around the globe are supposed to pledge their fealty to this man. Indeed, the group’s propagandists organized a media campaign celebrating the allegiance of jihadists everywhere from the Philippines to West Africa. What’s curious is that the jihadists have provided few biographical details about their new head honcho besides his nom de guerre.

In the days after Baghdadi’s death, I spoke to U.S. counterterrorism officials who said they suspected that Baghdadi’s replacement is Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, also known as Hajji ‘Abdallah. They haven’t confirmed this identification on the record, but the U.S. government has been closely tracking ‘Abdallah’s jihadist career for some time. 

In August 2019—two months prior to Baghdadi’s demise—the U.S. State Department offered a reward of up to $5 million for information on ‘Abdallah’s whereabouts. Foggy Bottom had already identified him as “a potential successor” to Baghdadi, noting that he supervised some aspects of the Islamic State’s global operations. ‘Abdallah’s career began during the days of the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and he rose through its ranks since then. Eventually, according to the State Department, he became one of Baghdadi’s “most senior ideologues.” In that role, he “helped drive and justify the abduction, slaughter, and trafficking of the Yazidi religious minority in northwest Iraq.”

Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis were forced to flee their homes in northern Iraq as the jihadists rampaged through Sinjar and other towns. Baghdadi’s goons enslaved Yazidi children and women, forcing many of them to become sex slaves. Yazidi men who refused to convert to the Islamic State’s version of Islam were summarily slaughtered. And Hajji ‘Abdallah was one of the chief masterminds of this barbaric campaign. 

Writing for the Guardian on Monday, Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool reported that “officials from two intelligence services” have confirmed that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi is in fact Hajji ‘Abdallah. Again, this is consistent with what I’ve heard, but it still hasn’t been completely confirmed.  

Now, you may be asking: Does it really matter who this terrorist creep is? Yes, it does. I’ll give you some reasons why.

First, as Chulov and Rasool wrote, Hajji ‘Abdallah is from “an Iraqi Turkmen family in the town of Tal Afar” and “one of the few non-Arabs among the leadership.” This is important. Both the new Islamic State leader and his spokesman have “al-Qurayshi” in their aliases. The implication is that they are from the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad and, therefore, legitimate Islamic rulers. Baghdadi himself played this game, claiming descent from Muhammad’s tribesmen in order to burnish his legitimacy. This was always dubious. And it becomes even more unlikely if the new Islamic State chieftain is not even an Arab, but instead an ethnic Turkmen. 

If the U.S. and its allies were adept at messaging—and, trust me, they are not—this is the sort of apparent discrepancy that would be trumpeted far and wide as part of a counterterrorist media campaign. 

That messaging campaign would also highlight the fact that little else is known about the man deemed “Emir of the Faithful”. While we could get a message from “Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi” any day now, he still hasn’t addressed the public, let alone explained himself. Given that thousands of men across the globe have decided to genuflect to this stateless ruler over the past two and a half months, one would think that this is the sort of problem the U.S. and its allies would be working overtime to highlight. 

Consider that files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound, show that ambiguity over the identity of the Islamic State of Iraq’s first emir, a jihadist known as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, caused some significant problems for al-Qaeda. Back then, from 2006 to 2010, al-Qaeda firmly backed the Islamic State of Iraq, telling Iraqis and others that they owed their allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. But jihadist critics argued that no one really knew Abu Omar’s true identity or background, so it was absurd for anyone to declare their fealty to him. Bin Laden had to answer this charge in both his private correspondence and public statements. There’s more to the story, but the point is that this could be a real problem for the current Islamic State, which split off from al-Qaeda. But thus far the U.S. and its allies have done little to exploit it.

Finally, Hajji ‘Abdallah is a founding member of the Islamic State’s first incarnation, with his jihadist biography stretching back to the days of al-Qaeda in Iraq (circa 2003-04). If this is accurate, then it demonstrates, once again, that the former caliphate still retains key veteran personnel. This is true despite 16-plus years of war in Iraq, as well as an intense manhunt to find and kill all of the organization’s senior men. 

That’s one reason that the group isn’t dead—despite the loss of its territory.  

Will the U.S. military withdraw from Africa?
As I discussed in the first Vital Interests newsletter, this U.S. military is reportedly considering withdrawing most of its 6,000 or so troops stationed in Africa. Working with local allies, the U.S. has been trying to disrupt branches of both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. In the name of “great power competition,” some in the Defense Department see this as a distraction from the threats posed by China and Russia. They make this argument despite the fact that the U.S. has approximately 370,000 personnel deployed as part of the Indo-Pacific Command—the largest American combatant command there is, by far. It’s not even close. 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reportedly thinks the drawdown is necessary to adhere to the National 2018 National Defense Strategy. But that paper didn’t say the threat of terrorism had gone away entirely. 

Esper’s planned withdrawal is now coming under scrutiny. The French government has criticized the plan, with President Emmanuel Macron describing America’s role as “irreplaceable.” France has several thousand of its own troops in Africa, but America’s logistical, military, and intelligence support is the best in the world. Leaders throughout West Africa say that America’s counterterrorism support is crucial and have called on the U.S. to stay. And as first reported by DefenseNews, both Democrats and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have called on Esper to reconsider his plans. 

The possibility of an American withdrawal from Africa comes at a time when the jihadist menace is spreading across the continent. In a statement issued just this week, Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership emphasized the importance of the jihadists’ efforts in both East and West Africa. Two al-Qaeda branches are fighting to establish Islamic emirates—one centered in Mali and the surrounding countries, with the other in Somalia. The Islamic State has a significant presence as well. 

Again, the U.S. doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of uniformed troops in Africa. The reported figure is about 6,000, with contractors and intelligence personnel adding to their numbers. Some Americans have died in battles, including recently in Kenya, and that is a significant consideration. But more often than not, local allies are leading the fight on the ground. 

Calls to extricate the U.S. from “endless wars” are mounting and it may be the case that there are no American leaders left who want to explain why it is necessary to carry on. But if the U.S. decides to withdraw from Africa, it won’t be because “great power competition” beckons. It will be because there is no longer any will to fight terrorists over there.  

Thanks for reading. Please send tips, topic suggestions, general feedback to If you find it interesting, I hope you’ll forward it to friends or colleagues who might be interested in signing up. They can do so here. Members can leave comments on the thread below. I’ll try to join that discussion in the coming days.

Photograph of Donald Trump signing the China trade agreement Vice Premier Liu He at the White House on January 15, 2020, by Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images.

How to Understand Our 'Great Power Competition' With China

It’s important, but it’s not the only national security issue.

Thank you for signing up for Vital Interests, my new newsletter for The Dispatch. In this first issue, I’d like to explain the intent behind it and set the stage for future newsletters. As you might have guessed from the name, this publication will focus on threats to America’s national security and interests around the globe. 

If you don't know me, I'm s senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based think tank, though I live and work in New York. (I've fought the move to the swamp for more than a decade!) I'm also the senior editor of FDD's Long War Journal, a widely cited counterterrorism publication. I've been writing about security and counterterrorism for more than 15 years and have testified before Congress on 20 occasions concerning related matters. Once upon a time, I was also the senior counterterrorism adviser for Mayor Giuliani's ill-fated 2008 presidential campaign. But please don't hold that against me. 

The concept of “vital interests” is an old one, but what it means in the 21st century is up for debate. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and we should be deeply skeptical of anyone claiming to have it all figured out. But I’ll share some of my initial thoughts below. Namely, I’ll address two related questions: How does the U.S. government currently understand the “vital interests” of the citizenry? And why am I worried that the government is unable to walk and chew gum at the same time? Let’s discuss. 

When announcing his administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2017, President Trump defined America’s “four vital national interests” as: “Protect[ing] the homeland, the American people, and American way of life,” “Promot[ing] American prosperity,” “Preserv[ing] peace through strength,” and “Advanc[ing] American influence.” 

In general, each of those “four pillars” makes some sense—but obviously they are vague. 

The NSS, which was shepherded by Trump’s national security adviser at the time, retired Gen. H.R. McMaster, offered some further clarity by dividing America’s adversaries and enemies into three tiers. China and Russia are in the top tier. As “revisionist powers,” they seek to use all elements of their national strength “to shape a world antithetical to our interests and values.” In the second tier are “regional” dictatorships, such as those in Iran and North Korea, which “threaten their neighbors, and pursue weapons of mass destruction.” And then, in the third tier, there are the “jihadist terrorists” in organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The 2017 NSS and the subsequent National Defense Strategy (NDS), which was released by the Defense Department the following year, represent a fundamental reordering of America’s foreign policy priorities. From September 11, 2001, onward, American policymakers placed the fight against terrorists, once upon a time known as the “Global War on Terrorism,” at the forefront of their agenda. But in 2017, the terrorist threat was downgraded to a status of lesser importance. “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” the authors of the NDS wrote.

The catchphrase used by many in Washington to describe this shift in focus is “Great Power Competition.” To be sure, the concept has many merits. But over the past few years, some in Washington have become myopic, using the focus on this grand game to justify poor decision-making in other areas. Does competition with China require the U.S. to whitewash the Taliban while withdrawing from Afghanistan? You wouldn’t think so—but I’ve heard a senior State Department official make exactly that argument. Which is the source of my quip about walking and chewing gum at the same time. 

Let’s get into it. 

China, China, China!

The new focus on China was a long time coming. America was complacent in the face of China’s rising power for the 40-plus years after President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Indeed, the U.S. helped China improve its technological infrastructure, upgrade its military and provided other goods and services under the theory that economic liberalization would lead to greater political freedom. American policymakers didn’t heed Milton Friedman’s warning in his classic 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. “History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom,” Friedman wrote. “Clearly it is not a sufficient condition.” To bolster his point, Friedman pointed to pre-World War II regimes in Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan, and tsarist Russia, all of which combined “private enterprise” with illiberal politics “at various times.” 

U.S. officials didn’t learn this history lesson. From the early 1970s onward, the U.S. often acted as if China’s relative economic liberalization was both necessary and sufficient for political freedom. The growing Chinese dragon would be tamed by McDonald’s, the thinking held. That theory has been conclusively disproven, not only in the case of China, where an authoritarian regime relies on increasingly oppressive tactics to maintain its power internally and bully others around the world, but also with respect to Cuba and Russia. Like China, the latter two countries have enjoyed access to international markets and global capital, but haven’t liberalized their political regimes.

It’s easy to see why the White House, as well as the State and Defense Departments, have decided to focus their attention on China. Today, the Chinese pose a unique combination of threats to American power and security. The U.S. still leads the world in military spending, but China has closed the gap and developed low-cost means for projecting its power. A growing body of evidence indicates that China has global ambitions. Xi Jinping, the general secretary of China’s Communist Party, has spoken of “Chinese wisdom” as a key to solving the world’s problems and vows to build a “community of common human destiny.” This benign-sounding phrase is, as the U.S.—China Economic and Security Review Commission has pointed out, actually a “CCP formulation for a China-led global governance regime.” Xi has also vowed to build the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class” military, while Beijing refers to the U.S. as “the powerful enemy adversary.” To date, China’s international ambitions, from a military perspective, have been somewhat restrained. But there is a legitimate concern in Washington that China’s long-term designs are quickly evolving both within Asia, throughout the South China sea, and possibly elsewhere. 

Since China’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the U.S. and Chinese economies have become increasingly intertwined. (President Donald Trump has been the foremost critic of its trade practices, yet his own line of ties are made in China.) Under Washington’s previous theory of nation-state behavior, these economic bonds should have mitigated the risks of Chinese hostility. But American companies have been forced to deal with an array of unsavory Chinese policies, ranging from cyber-theft and industrial espionage, to forced technological transfers and unfair trade practices. China hasn’t respected intellectual property rights either. The Chinese government does not draw a firm line between civilian and military interests, and pursues policies that fuse the two. This basic difference in the structure of the two nations’ political economies creates significant problems for U.S. policymakers, as the American government isn’t supposed to be in the business of managing businesses. The Chinese government does just that. 

China presents unique cultural threats as well. China has stood up hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world, including on college campuses throughout the U.S. At first blush, these may appear to be rather innocuous organizations—part of a genuine effort to celebrate the majesty of China’s ancient civilization. But as various accounts attest, these same institutes have been used to surveil dissidents, while also spreading propaganda and disinformation. At a time when America is undergoing an identity crisis, with many academics being ambivalent, at best, about their own nation’s history and legitimacy, it is especially curious to see so many Confucius Institutes welcoming American college students through their doors. 

This points to another aspect of America’s competition with China. The Chinese government adheres to an ethnic nationalism and strictly defines what it means to be a citizen. This may limit China’s appeal abroad. While the Han are a massive ethnic group, all other ethnicities are basically excluded from the government’s notion of what it means to be Chinese. This has also fueled tensions within China’s borders, as Xi’s regime has ruthlessly suppressed the Uighur population, among others, seeking to eradicate any perceived cultural challenges to the state’s agenda. The recent protests in Hong Kong also speak to the internal tensions. These are clear liabilities for Xi and his subordinates. How America handles China’s human rights abuses is another wedge issue in the contest. 

Thus far, I’ve only scratched the surface of “Great Power Competition” between America and China. But hey, that’s one reason why this newsletter is going to be a regular publication. And you’ll note that I wrote about China’s great power status—not Russia’s. There’s a reason for that: I’m not at all convinced Russia qualifies as a great power contender. There’s no question that Vladimir Putin is a nasty actor with an anti-American agenda. Some aspects of Russian power, such as the country’s nuclear arsenal, do qualify as “great”—albeit terrifying. But Russia doesn’t have nearly the same level of economic influence as China. Xi commands the second-largest economy in the world. Putin? Not so much. Russia’s GDP is comparable to that of Texas, and less than California’s. For all of the talk about President Trump’s supposed ties to Russia, none of his ties are “Made in Russia.”

I’m not arguing that Russia is a non-factor on the world stage. It’s a safe bet Putin will cause problems in the future. And the relationship between China and Russia is especially concerning, as their cooperation across a number of spheres only amplifies the threat from both of them. But the concept of “Great Power Competition” has its limits. 

Which brings me to some additional points I’d like to raise in this inaugural issue of Vital Interests.

America has already pivoted away from the 9/11 wars. 

In conversations about “Great Power Competition,” you often hear about the need to substantially reduce America’s military commitments in the fight against terrorism. Of course, America’s rivalries with China and Russia are not limited to the military sphere, but encompass multiple areas of life. In addition, here is a fact that is underappreciated in policymaking circles: America’s military pivot has already occurred. 

In December, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he’d like “to go down to a lower number” of troops in Afghanistan, so they could either be brought home or “redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the Great Power Competition that’s vis-a-vis China.” 

I’ve heard similar sentiments from Defense Department and State Department officials over the last couple of years. There is this idea that the 9/11 wars—the conflicts unleashed by al-Qaeda’s deadliest day and its aftermath—are somehow impeding the great power game. That isn’t true. 

As of mid-2019, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which is responsible for managing Chinese military threats, already had “four times the assigned forces as any other geographical combatant command.” That’s four times as many troops as U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees America’s military efforts across 20 nations in the Middle East, Central and South Asia. It’s also four times more than U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which coordinates the military’s actions across the African continent, including in various jihadist hotspots. 

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command currently has “more than 370,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, DoD civilians, and contractors assigned within its area of responsibility.” A few thousand more from Afghanistan aren’t likely to make much of a difference. 

Put another way, the days of large-scale U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are already over. The U.S. force level in Afghanistan peaked at around 100,000 troops in 2010 and 2011. Today, there are about 12,000 to 13,000 American troops in the country.  In 2007, there were more than 165,000 U.S. service members in Iraq. Today, there are approximately 5,500 in Iraq and several hundred more in Syria. Their ranks are bolstered in both countries by contractors, intelligence personnel, and others. Yes, as a result of the recent tensions with Iran, the Trump administration is deploying several thousand more troops to the Middle East. But  the total number of American troops deployed today to fight terrorists is a far cry from the peak.

In sum, whereas nearly 200,000 American troops were deployed across Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, today there are about 20,000 (or fewer) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Again, there are also contractors and other personnel involved, so these are just ballpark estimates. But these rough figures give you a sense of how the U.S. has already greatly reduced its military commitments in the Middle East and South Asia. American allies are doing the bulk of the fighting. 

One can argue the merits of withdrawing more troops from these theaters, including Afghanistan, where the U.S. has wasted tens of billions of dollars. But the idea that the Pentagon needs to do so in order to take on China doesn’t really make much sense. 

The jihadists haven’t been defeated.

While the U.S. has greatly reduced its commitments in the fight against terrorism, the jihadists are still a threat. Al-Qaeda’s East African arm, Shabaab, killed three Americans during a predawn raid on the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya earlier this month. That airbase is used to launch counterterrorism missions against Shabaab and also to deploy a quick response force. The death of one American in Iraq, as well as an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, led the Trump administration to target Qassem Suleimani—Iran’s foremost terrorist and head of the prolific Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That, in turn, led to Iran lobbing ballistic missiles at American air bases in Iraq. 

The reaction to the killing of three Americans in Kenya was far more subdued. But the raid in Kenya demonstrates that al-Qaeda is very much alive in East Africa. Indeed, Sunni jihadism is probably growing faster in the African continent than any other geographic region. This is true not only in East Africa, but also in West Africa, where both ISIS and al-Qaeda groups are flourishing.

But as part of the obsession with “Great Power Competition,” the Pentagon is considering a major withdrawal of forces from West Africa and possibly East Africa. My sources have been chattering about this for months. The New York Times published a lengthy account of the deliberations on Christmas Eve. That piece was titled, “Pentagon Eyes Africa Drawdown as First Step in Global Troop Shift.” The subheadline explained that the Defense Department’s “deliberations stem from a push to reduce missions battling distant terrorist groups, and to instead refocus on confronting so-called Great Powers like Russia and China.”

How many American troops are deployed as part of the counterterrorism mission in Africa? According to the Times, “about 6,000 to 7,000” with approximately “500 Special Operations troops fighting” Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s arm in Somalia and East Africa. Now remember the figures given above: There are about 370,000 personnel already deployed as part of the Indo-Pacific Command. Moreover, China has developed relationships across the African continent that are intended to further its grand designs. There’s no reason the U.S. military’s footprint, which provides American spies and diplomatic personnel with a greater latitude to operate, needs to serve only one mission. 

Now, there are good reasons that American forces shouldn’t get further entrenched in Africa. But the need to reposition forces to counter China and Russia really isn’t one of them. The same can be said about Afghanistan. The State Department has pushed a deal with the Taliban that will treat al-Qaeda’s longtime ally as a de facto counterterrorism partner, even though the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain closely allied to this day. That isn’t necessary to draw down further from the country, nor does it help with “Great Power Competition.” And even though many criticisms of the “endless war” are well-placed, there are still legitimate terrorist threats emanating from South Asia. 

In future editions of Vital Interests, I’m going to touch on all of these issues. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) rightly prioritized the growing competition with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. But the NSS didn’t say the terrorist threat can be ignored in the name of “Great Power Competition.” Some, today, want to do just that.  

Photograph of a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at Tiananmen Square by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

Loading more posts…