A gents from the US’ Department of Homeland Security sneaked into a tiny office in Oakland’s Chinatown before sunrise on Dec. 4, 2011. They tread carefully, quickly snapping digital pictures so they could put everything back in place. They did not want Philip Chaohui He (何朝輝), the businessman who rented the space, to learn they had been there.
Seven months had passed since they had launched an undercover operation against a suspected Chinese arms-trafficking network — one of scores operating in support of Beijing’s ambitious military expansion into outer space.
The agents had allowed a Colorado manufacturer to ship He a type of technology that China covets, but cannot replicate: radiation-hardened microchips.
Known as rad-chips, the dime-sized devices are critical for operating satellites, for guiding ballistic missiles and for protecting military hardware from nuclear and solar radiation.
It was a gamble. This was a chance to take down an entire Chinese smuggling ring.
However, if He succeeded in trafficking the rad-chips to China, the devices might someday be turned against US sailors, soldiers or pilots, deployed on satellites providing the battlefield eyes and ears for China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Entering He’s office at 2:30am that December morning, the agents looked inside the FedEx boxes. The microchips were gone. The supervisor on the case, Greg Slavens, recoiled.
“There are a bunch of rad-chips headed to China,” he recalls thinking, “and I’m responsible,” Slavens said.
In the past 20 years, the US has spent trillions of dollars to create and deploy the world’s best military technology.
It also has enacted laws and regulations aimed at keeping that technology away from potential adversaries such as Iran, North Korea and the nation that poses perhaps the most significant long-term threat to US military supremacy, China.
China’s efforts to obtain US technology have tracked its accelerated defense buildup. The Chinese military budget — second only to the US’ — has soared to close to US$200 billion.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is championing a renaissance aimed at China’s asserting its dominance in the region and beyond. In recent weeks, Beijing has declared control over air space in the contested East China Sea and launched China’s first rover mission to the moon.
As China rises to challenge the US as a power in the Pacific, US officials say Beijing is penetrating the US defense industry in ways that not only compromise weapons systems, but also enable it to secure some of the best and most dangerous technology.
A classified Pentagon advisory-board report this year, for instance, asserted that Chinese hackers had gained access to plans for two dozen US weapons systems, according to the Washington Post.
Yet the smuggling of technology such as radiation-hardened microchips out of the US may present a more immediate challenge to the US military.
If China hacks into a sensitive blueprint, years might pass before a weapon can be manufactured. Ready-made components and weapons systems can be — and are — used immediately.
Beijing says its efforts to modernize its military are above-board.
“China has mainly relied on itself for research and development and manufacturing,” the Chinese defense ministry said in a statement.
How often the Chinese succeed at acquiring US-made weaponry or components is unclear.