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Dr. Robert S. Spalding III discusses relations between the U.S. and China post-coronavirus

On June 5, Mr. John Lovewell, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at The Institute of World Politics, introduced Dr. Robert S. Spalding III, Brig Gen, USAF (ret) at a webinar in IWP’s lecture series on China. Dr. Spalding discussed what relations will look like between the United States and China post-coronavirus.

About the speaker

Dr. Spalding, a retired brigadier general, is a world-renowned national security policy strategist serving in senior strategy and diplomatic positions in both the Department of Defense and the State Department for 26 years. He was the chief architect for the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and was the senior director for strategy for President Trump at the National Security Council. Dr. Spalding has extensive expertise in Chinese strategy and economic competition. His book, Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept, is an in-depth account of his work countering China. Additionally, several of his academic papers have been cited both nationally and internationally. His Air and Space Power Journal article “America’s Two Air Forces” is frequently used in the West Point curriculum. He has made several media appearances on BBC, OAN, CNBC, and FOX News, as well as multiple radio stations and streaming services discussing the global economy and national security.

Centralized decision-making in China

Dr. Spalding began the discussion by talking about current events relating to the coronavirus pandemic. His first point was that the U.S. unemployment rate is lower than expected, and the slowly rising stock market is a point of concern for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), because it has taken advantage of the spread of coronavirus to further strengthen its economy and weaken the U.S. economy.

To help understand what this means and how it relates to the pandemic, Dr. Spalding gave an example of a similar situation that occurred during his career. In 2016, he went to Beijing as a senior defense official and, upon his arrival, China seized a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) and was using it to relay pictures to Xi Jinping in Beijing, as well as to take temperature and pressure readings in the South China Sea. Dr. Spalding was responsible for negotiating this issue and spent a long time with a Chinese general from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

He was impressed by the PLA and its ability to command and control its forces, while relaying any and all information to Xi Jinping, who had direct control over the UUV. In other words, the PLA’s chain of command procedure and central authority decision making was nearly flawless. He then explained how this scenario is relevant to the coronavirus pandemic.

China’s response to the coronavirus allowed it to spread

On January 7, Xi Jinping was personally in charge of the situation surrounding the outbreak in Wuhan, just as he was with the UUV in 2016. On January 13, credible U.S. media reports confirmed human-to-human transmission of coronavirus had occurred. At the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted that there had only been limited human-to-human transmission. Nearly two weeks later, Wuhan was shut down during peak travel season. International flights continued, but domestic flights did not. By the time international flights to and from Wuhan were shut down, five million people had already left Wuhan, according to its mayor. Additionally, the WHO did not declare a pandemic until January 30, even though they had met earlier that month at Geneva to discuss the transmission.

Dr. Spalding believes that the CCP knew about the human-to-human transmission and the severity of the virus but continued to let it spread. He said that while the rest of the world was in a panic, China went from being a net exporter of personal protective equipment (PPE) to a net importer of PPE. The CCP wanted to make sure that large amounts of PPE were coming to and staying in China rather than leaving China. Dr. Spalding stated that the CCP “did not prevent it or slow it down but promoted the spread of coronavirus.”

Taiwan’s coronavirus response

To explain further how poorly the pandemic was handled by the CCP and how negligent the WHO was, Dr. Spalding compared their actions to democratic Taiwan’s actions.

In December, Taiwan sent representatives from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to Wuhan to speak with medical professionals. He said that Taiwan had reason to believe that there was a medical issue in Wuhan. The CDC representatives came back concerned and believed that the CCP was not telling them everything. Taiwan sent a warning letter to the WHO, but because they are not a member of the WHO, it was ignored.

On January 1, Taiwan started performing medical checks on passengers flying from Wuhan, implementing social distancing, and requiring face masks to be worn in public.

Dr. Spalding explained the reason Taiwan acted so early was because of the death toll it faced from SARS in 2003. Dr. Spalding referenced his first-hand experience in Shanghai during the spread of the SARS virus. While it was much less severe than the coronavirus, the CCP acted the same way then as it is now. Taiwan learned from the SARS outbreak and was more proactive in handling the coronavirus.

He finished this portion of the lecture by saying, “Now we know that a properly functioning democracy and WHO would have acted much quicker if they had taken the CCP for what they are – which is a non-transparent totalitarian regime.”

China’s social media influence operations around coronavirus

To further strengthen his argument that the CCP was promoting the spread of the coronavirus, Dr. Spalding talked about China’s growing social media influence operations. In March, U.S. citizens started receiving text messages and social media posts from the CCP giving the impression that the U.S. federal government was going to impose martial law: this was an attempt by the CCP to create panic among the U.S. population.

He mentioned Dr. Kathleen Carley, an American social scientist and a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who stated that 40% of social media posts regarding the pandemic are created by bots of state actors trying to create panic in certain regions of the world. Additionally, Dr. Spalding identified the same operations targeting the peaceful protests regarding the death of George Floyd. China and Russia are posting on social media trying to escalate the situation.

To further understand state-sponsored influence, Dr. Spalding recommended listening to Dr. Rand Waltzman’s presentation at DEFCON. In his presentation, Dr. Waltzman explains the use of disinformation in czarist Russia and how its evolution, paired with the creation of social media, has caused global disinformation.

Dr. Spalding stated, “This pandemic will lead to acceleration of decoupling [China and the U.S.] that was already happening in the first quarter of 2018.” The question is: how can the U.S. protect its people and country, while preserving and promoting growth for its economy? This is what the U.S. will deal with in the future as it tries to unwind its connection with the CCP and reinvest in U.S. citizens.

Development of 5G in China

Dr. Spalding concluded his speech by talking about the issues surrounding the creation of 5G. Recently, he testified in the United Kingdom House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee explaining the concerns regarding 5G that both the U.S. and the CCP have. He believes the main area of concern is data. The U.S. open data model has been an issue since the creation of the internet, because it is easy to manipulate data.

He elaborated on this issue by stating that the development of 4G enabled Silicon Valley companies to track individuals, collect data, and create targetable intelligence to make people better consumers as well as control their behaviors. The CCP is doing the same thing with 5G by deploying it globally to dominate the international community. Because 5G is geared towards taking the computing platform out of the device and into the network, data is even easier to obtain.

To address U.S. concerns about the CCP leading in 5G development, Dr. Spalding quoted Dr. Kai Fu-Lee, the leading artificial intelligence (AI) researcher in China, stating, “China is to data as Saudi Arabia is to oil.” Its goal with the 5G platform is a much more advanced Silicon Valley model by exponentially increasing data collection through big data analysis, machine learning, and AI.

5G also poses a major business problem in the U.S. Dr. Spalding stated that U.S. telephone companies (TELCOs) invested roughly 250 billion dollars into the creation of 4G, but companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google decreased its value by monetizing user data, leaving TELCOs with no way to pay off its networks. This left the U.S. with TELCOs that are not ready to build a 5G network, making the U.S. extremely uncompetitive in AI and autonomy.

Lastly, Dr. Spalding addressed the policy problem that 5G poses to the U.S. He stated, “Our U.S. national security establishment hasn’t accepted that, while we do a good job of protecting the air, land, sea, and space, we do an absolutely horrible job of protecting our nation’s data and protecting our nation’s citizens from influence in the digital domain.” He concluded his lecture by saying it is not only difficult for the U.S. to prevent relationships between the CCP and U.S. leaders in government, industry, and academia, but the U.S. also does not have a grasp on how the CCP influences the U.S. from an individual perspective.

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