Q&A

U.S. Official: Beware of Chinese Leaders Bearing Coronavirus Gifts

Senior State arms official says China’s outreach could put at risk sovereign U.S. allies and American weapons systems.

R. Clarke Cooper in Washington
R. Clarke Cooper testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee nominations hearing in Washington on Aug. 1, 2018. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
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The Trump administration is concerned that China could be trying to squeeze U.S. allies with a recent diplomatic salvo of coronavirus-related medical aid and humanitarian assistance, R. Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, said in an interview with Foreign Policy.

As China’s caseload from the virus first reported in Hubei province appears to be on the decline after peaking in mid-February, Beijing has pledged to send medical experts to Italy—the European nation with the most COVID-19 deaths—and a Chinese company has sold nearly 60,000 testing kits to Spain, many of which were found to be ineffective.

China’s aid offensive is leading the Trump administration to issue the same warning it has repeatedly given to Beijing’s would-be investment partners on port, highway, and other infrastructure projects around the world: that China could be leveraging those deals to gain greater control over foreign militaries and governments, and snoop on sensitive U.S. weapons.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Do you have any concern that China and Russia will use aid for coronavirus-stricken nations to further defense ties?

R. Clarke Cooper: On the surface, I think the question partners should ask is, “Is this an altruistic measure?” But we, as we’ve said on things like infrastructure investment, foreign investment, and arms sales, is caveat emptor—buyer beware. Maybe in this case, it’s gift-receiver beware, because China has suggested they’re gifting some of these things.

Look very carefully as to why the PRC is designating certain resources in certain places.

What we don’t want to do is not only have American technology exploited or stolen, we don’t want it inadvertently applied and misused by a state, like the PRC or by a state that would put it in an Orwellian application, per se. 

FP: There have been some calls within the administration to pull U.S. weapons systems from countries that host Chinese Belt and Road projects. Is that still on the table? 

RCC: What COVID has done is it has caused a global, natural operational pause. It touches everything and everybody. Regardless if one’s a state actor, sitting in Beijing, or nonstate actor like a violent extremist organization, everyone’s impacted.

If we are partnered with a state, and they have either a historic or legacy sustainment line that’s been provided by the PRC in Beijing or the Russians, our concerns are about how that works in interoperable fashion. There is a concern that we would not want any significant U.S. defense articles or sensitive systems to be at risk of exposure or exploitation.

There are some weapons and material produced by the Chinese and Russians that do not have any consequence to a significant system. If a partner flies F-16s and they’re interoperable with the U.S. Air Force, and they’re interoperable with other states that fly F-16s, but yet their ground guys happen to carry Kalashnikovs, that’s not a risk. 

FP: Would the U.S. think of curtailing ties with nations trying to onboard systems like Huawei and 5G?

RCC: The issue is making sure that things that are of a sensitive nature provided to a partner are not at risk for exploitation or theft.

What we wouldn’t want to have happen is either inadvertently, or by exposure, have any of the infrastructure that’s been put in place in that security relationship compromised or impeded. We wouldn’t want our own unique technologies or unique information we’re sharing with a partner to be exploited or just outright stolen. 

FP: So the espionage component is a big deal.

RCC: Absolutely. In [the U.S. government] writ large, we’re pointing out to partners if they’re doing particular foreign investments, purchase, or acquisition, that they’re not giving away or selling away critical infrastructure or strategic parts of what would be their national defense or their sovereignty.

It would be anything on information technology, IT infrastructure, or telecommunications infrastructure. It can be physical as well. It could be the management of a port. The contracting or selling out of may be what would be a government function, like highways, infrastructure, highway management, railroads, anything where a partner is either ceding or contracting out space to an actor that may not be taking into account that state’s sovereignty.

FP: What have been the major impacts of the coronavirus on U.S. arms sales?

RCC: What we have heard so far is no state partner has voiced or reported interest in amending or canceling a procurement. What we don’t know is where budgets are going to change, because everyone’s revenue streams have changed.

Industry, to their credit, have been very candid about where they would need either assistance on moving the machinations of case processes. They’ve also been very candid about where they might need extensions.

We’re able to do cases at the same pace and volume we did before COVID. Industry is still reporting they can do what they are already signed up to do contractually and deliver. Partners are claiming that they still want to procure. On top of that, we’re still getting some new and additional requests.

FP: How has the spread of coronavirus impacted arms sales for China and Russia?

RCC: Moscow is still going to seek to take the opportunity to disrupt where they can. When it comes to alliances like NATO, they’re using any means possible to disrupt the alliance. They’re using any means possible to disrupt any states that would be interested in aspiring to join.

Then Beijing is certainly going to continue to cast itself as the savior of COVID, and they probably aren’t going to cease from seeking additional markets on the sales of defense articles. You’re still going to see entities like [Russia’s] Wagner Group having a disruptive role and the PRC trying to use the Belt and Road Initiative as an exploitive mechanism to extract resources.

But there is that pause I mentioned. The virus is not discriminant. Everyone is concerned about it, because it can force things to stop, and some adversaries are lacking capacity.

FP: Which weapons systems are China and Russia looking to sell to U.S. partners?

RCC: The state armaments entity in Russia has been globally shopping several air defense systems. The one that’s the most popular is the S-400. They’ve also been shopping the S-300. What we do know is that while they’re being shopped around, they’re having trouble selling, even at bargain-basement prices or fire-sale prices. We also know the air defense capabilities the Russians are trying to sell are usually tied to something else, maybe another deal.

This is where quality is actually going to come into play. And we do win on that. We’ve approached states under consideration for a procurement of a Russian article or a Chinese article, and they said, “Well, it was cheap,” or “Well, we can get it faster, or they throw in an additional system, but we really prefer yours.”

While comparatively maybe the timeline is a little longer, maybe the price is a little higher, it’s still going to work, and we’re going to be with you, and we’re going to train you on it, and you’re going to be able to actually still use it.

To be fair to Moscow and Beijing, their challenges predate COVID. None of us have grasped the impacts yet, because the challenges on being able to make deliveries and sale cancellations and failures on tests of particular materiel being produced by Beijing or Moscow, that all predates COVID. So what COVID may amplify is the ability of who can still produce and who can still produce it at a quality level.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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