Covert CIA-China cooperation was part of successive administrations’ programs to undermine the Soviet Union
This article originally appeared in The Washington Times
A recently published book by former Pentagon official Michael Pillsbury has shed light on one of the U.S. government’s darkest secrets: cooperation between the CIA and communist Chinese intelligence services.
The book “The Hundred Year Marathon” was cleared for publication by the FBI, CIA and Pentagon, thus giving many of its eye-opening disclosures an official cast.
China has not responded to the book’s disclosures nor denied past cooperation, although one intelligence-linked Chinese commentator stated that the book’s author, now a consultant, does not represent “mainstream” U.S. views on China.
Covert CIA-China cooperation was part of successive administrations’ programs to undermine the Soviet Union, which China turned on after realizing Moscow’s Marxist-Leninist economic model was doomed. China instead began courting the United States for economic benefit while creating a revised communist economic system.
The disclosures of clandestine U.S.-China intelligence cooperation dating to the 1970s are likely to embarrass Beijing. China frequently attacks the CIA for allegedly fomenting democratic revolution in China and for supporting the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, whom China designated as a major enemy. Beijing also accused the CIA of organizing the recent large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. The U.S. government has denied any role in the public outcry over creeping Chinese control over the former British colony.
The book mentions many previously disclosed covert and clandestine cooperations between the CIA and Chinese intelligence, along with many surprising new details. Mr. Pillsbury was in charge of the covert operations and was aware of the intelligence cooperation when he was assistant undersecretary of defense for policy planning during the Reagan administration.
The joint operations included the major electronic spying program in China, code-named Chestnut, that targeted the Soviet Union and now Russia, as well as covert shipments of Chinese arms to Afghan rebels battling Soviet forces and anti-Cuban rebels in Angola.
The disclosures that are said to have upset Beijing the most, however, were related to a CIA-led operation to arm 50,000 anti-Vietnam rebels in Cambodia beginning in 1982. Initially, $2 million a year was spent, and then the amount was increased to $12 million and jointly conducted with Chinese assistance with Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
“The Chinese not only sold the weapons to us to give to the rebels, but also advised us on how to conduct these covert operations,” Mr. Pillsbury wrote, adding that the cooperation revealed China’s strategy for weakening a strong “hegemon,” a strategy that is likely being used today against the United States.
The strategy calls for attacking the hegemon’s vulnerabilities, convincing others to do the fighting and attacking the allies of the declining hegemon.
China, according to the book, supported Afghan rebel attacks inside the Soviet Union until CIA lawyers ended the strikes as overly provocative.
Asked about the declassified secrets in the book, Mr. Pillsbury told Inside the Ring, “I was delighted that many matters were approved for release that had been considered classified 10 years ago.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy did not return an email seeking comment.
An interesting historical note is that part of the estimated $2 billion China earned from U.S. weapons purchases indirectly involved current President Xi Jinping, who visited the Pentagon in 1980 — wearing a People’s Liberation Army uniform — and was a note-taker during meetings with the secretary of defense.
The Reagan administration also assisted China’s development of technology with large infusions of know-how under a secret directive that was designed to make China strong. Military aid was cut off after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square attacks, but other aid continued. The book did not say whether the clandestine cooperation is continuing.
No Chinese official or leader has said anything publicly about the programs, perhaps over concerns that the disclosures would undermine their legitimacy as good communists opposing the U.S. hegemon.