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15 Dec, 2020 15:36

Move over Russia! Chinese Caribbean phone spying story gives hint of what’s to come under Biden administration

Move over Russia! Chinese Caribbean phone spying story gives hint of what’s to come under Biden administration

A US telecoms expert believes China is snooping on Americans’ mobile phones in a number of Caribbean countries. Gary Miller’s claims are either proof of Beijing’s malfeasance, or drumbeats in the US’ march toward a new Cold War.

China allegedly used its second-largest telecoms operator – China Unicom – to send “tens of thousands” of so-called signaling messages to Americans in the Caribbean. These messages are usually used by operators to track phones and assess roaming charges, but Miller, a telecoms security consultant, told the Guardian on Tuesday that in some cases, they can be used for “tracking, monitoring, or intercepting communications.”

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Miller noticed the apparent “mass surveillance” operation in 2018, and claimed that in addition to being targeted by China, US mobile users were also signaled by two Caribbean operators: Cable & Wireless Communications (Flow) in Barbados and Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC). Miller called this a “strong and clear” indicator that these companies were working in cahoots with Beijing. China Unicom denies the allegations.

Barbados and the Bahamas are popular vacation spots for Americans, and Miller said that he wants “the public to know about” the Chinese threat there, and wants US operators to toughen up mobile security.

Miller’s explosive claims made the story the Guardian’s top read on Tuesday. However, allegations of high-tech Chinese spying are nothing new in the US. 

The Trump administration pushed a hard line on Beijing, hitting China with stiff import tariffs on one hand, and closing consulates and banning Chinese telecoms equipment due to espionage concerns on the other. Throughout Trump’s tenure, conservatives frequently sounded the alarm over China’s growing military and intelligence-gathering power, while liberals and the left remained fixated on Russia – blaming Moscow for everything from election meddling to cyber attacks on America’s infrastructure, to murdering jailed pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. 

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New Cold War(s)

However, the latest warning is one of several indicating that incoming president Joe Biden will fight a Cold War on two fronts. 

That Biden will take a hawkish stance on Russia is disputed by few. The former vice president has spoken of reasserting America’s commitment to NATO, of backing the pro-Western opposition in Belarus, and of being keen to “stand up to autocrats like Putin” and “impose real costs on Russia.” 

Backing him up are any number of sensationalist media stories about Vladimir Putin’s misdeeds. Russia has been accused of blasting American officials in Cuba and China with microwave radiation, of paying Taliban militants to kill US troops in Afghanistan, and of poisoning Alexey Navalny – a protest organizer built up in the West as supreme leader of the Russian opposition.

Regarding China, his administration will likely maintain a confrontational posture. Despite his son’s controversial business dealings in the country, and his own previous deference to “a rising China,” Biden’s proposed cabinet is packed with China hawks. His nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, is keen on rounding up an alliance of pro-American nations to confront China, while his choice for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was described by Forbes this summer as a Peter Navarro-like China hawk” who will do little to stop the US “decoupling” from the Asian superpower. 

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In confronting China, Biden would enjoy bipartisan support. Perhaps more importantly, he would also enjoy the support of the US’ ‘deep state’, the faceless bureaucracy that outlasts presidents and determines American foreign policy. Back in September, the Democrat-controlled House Intelligence Committee released a heavily-redacted report warning that the US’ 17 intelligence agencies had thus far failed to keep pace with their rivals in China. The report then called for a “significant realignment of resources” to close the apparent gap.

The Democrat-run committee used less bombastic language than Trump’s Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who claimed last week that Beijing is conducting “human testing” to develop “soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities.” Yet the message was the same: China is the US’ number one external enemy and should be treated with the seriousness a designation like that deserves.

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Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy considers China “predatory” and a “strategic competitor” that will require “increased and sustained investment.” Written in 2018 under the leadership of James Mattis, the strategy is unlikely to change under Lloyd Austin, Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense. 

While Biden’s China policy will likely be decided by his advisers, his military, and his intelligence agencies, stories of phone spying can be used to provide pretext for any escalation of tensions. Whatever their truthfulness, Miller’s phone-spying claims will almost certainly not be the last tales of Chinese skulduggery to surface as Biden’s China policy takes shape.

Of course, with top Democrats allegedly succumbing to the charms of Beijing’s spies, and Chinese professors boasting about their “friends” at the “very top” of the US establishment, Biden may want to clean his house first before focusing his attention outwards.

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