It is fair to say that most Americans’ concept of Russia today is based only loosely on reality; shaped largely by Hollywood, spy novels, and incessant hammering by the media against all things Russian. While such accounts of what has become cast as America’s “Enemy No. 1” make for good headlines and as a basis for that most elusive of crimes -- "collision" -- it dangerously shifts attention from a far more clever and riskier adversary: China.
While the craving for power and a dislike for Western values are shared by both Russia and China, the strategies employed by each for achieving global dominance are quite different. In a sense, the former plays checkers and the latter, chess.
Some of this at least, can be attributed to the state of each country's economy. While China’s has grown to become a very real competitor of the United States, Russia has been slipping down the economic ratings charts. This state of affairs is reflected also in the two countries' military policies. As China pumps billions into its armed forces while engaging no active military campaigns, Russia’s military is enduring significant cuts even as it continues to burn cash in Syria, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.
Russia’s slim budget for gaining global influence has produced meager results, but its effectiveness has been amplified because it provides an easy vehicle by which Democrats and the media can attack President Trump.
An exclusive report from Buzzfeed last week exposed a Russian plot in the Baltics to gain influence from funding “independent” news sites, while forcing them to produce pro-Kremlin pieces; content bolstered by the purchase of fake clicks, likes, and comments from troll farms. The strategy appears similar to what was seen during the 2016 election cycle. Compare those efforts, if you will, of pumping out fake news promoted by fake followers, to the long-term strategy China is employing to gain power and influence at the expense of the United States.
In real estate, Chinese buyers have been the top foreign investors in U.S. markets for some years now, grabbing significant footholds in California, New York, and elsewhere. In commerce, the Chinese have invested $175 billion into U.S. business interests since 2005, heavily targeting the finance and technology industries. Equally worrisome is China's infiltration of American colleges and universities, often in the guise of the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes, located on more than 100 campuses across the U.S.
The declared purpose of these Institutes is benign -- to teach Chinese language courses and promote cultural awareness. But the program's far more important underlying goals are less about education than “improving [Chinese] soft power”; this according to the Chinese government itself, which barely tries to disguise the real purposes of the program. As one official noted almost proudly, “Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical."
The U.S. government by and large has viewed this and other efforts by China to infiltrate American universities, businesses and think tanks with little, if any, real concern; but some red flags finally now are being raised. A provision in the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act prohibits U.S. universities from using Pentagon resources in conjunction with the Confucius Institute; and will soon prohibit Pentagon programs operating on campuses with such institutes until schools obtain a waiver. “Confucius Institutes are a key way the [Beijing] regime infiltrates American higher education to silence criticism and sanitize education about China,” Senator Ted Cruz said of the legislation.
Cruz’s comments are well-founded, but too mild. The Chinese have a very real and long-standing interest in using American college students, specifically Chinese-Americans and international students, as an active arm of its propaganda effort and its national defense strategy to acquire American technology, along with improved access to businesses and government entities at all levels in our country.
While Russian operatives may troll the internet, trying to pump their reputation and start trouble using fake identities, the Chinese are using the well-established, long-term strategy employed so effectively by American liberals for decades -- infiltrating colleges to mold the minds of impressionable young adults. This strategy reflects what conservative leader David Keene has cautioned for years, that "you only know what you're taught." China's strategy, coupled with massive investments into U.S. business interests, illustrates clearly that the Chinese are playing the long game, and happy to let Russia paranoia dominate the media headlines. Such an approach gives China greater cover to continue its work under the radar. Unfortunately, most Democrats and many Republicans are playing right into Beijing's hands.