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Why China can't be trusted -- the view from a former top secret military planner, stealth pilot

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Chinese President Xi Jinping . (REUTERS)

Have you ever watched a Chinese shadow play? Silhouettes in muted colors play upon a fabric screen to the sighing tones of a bowed instrument and the stilted beating of a rattle drum. A warrior in deep blue fights a rival, all in red. They twirl and clash, leading your eyes to one corner of the screen. 

Meanwhile, a shadow grows in the opposite corner, but you don’t notice because the puppeteer has your attention fixed. Then, with the loud crash of a cymbal, the music stops, and a great, forest green dragon appears at center stage, breathing purple fire. 

You jump, startled, and smile at the puppet master’s skill.

A similar shadow is growing in one corner of the world stage. While our attention remains fixed on the antics in the Middle East, a monstrous threat grows unattended across the Pacific. This time, when the music stops, there will be nothing to smile about.

The Central Committee and the PLA will lie, cheat, steal, and bully to accomplish their goal of dominance.

The shadowy tendrils of Chinese power are reaching farther than ever before. 

The PLA is executing a gradual and very deliberate expansion into the Pacific, sending out more ships and setting up surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile systems for area denial. 

Simultaneously, President Xi Jinping, and the Central Committee are pressing territorial claims against islands and reefs close to the Philippines and Japan – even setting up military garrisons on their rocky shores. 

These actions are designed to change the status quo in the Pacific, and the United States is allowing it. Despite pleas for help from our allies, the Obama administration has staunchly refused to pick a side.

The Central Committee is also targeting the U.S. and other national economies through underhanded business practices and unbalanced trade policies. Most US markets are open to China, but China is only slowly reciprocating – and at a cost. 

In order to participate in Chinese markets, U.S. companies must shift manufacturing across the Pacific or hand over trade secrets, only to be quickly undersold by Chinese companies. 

The macroeconomic view is even worse. 

China buys massive amounts of U.S. Treasury notes in order to manipulate the price of the dollar. Sadly, that makes China our biggest lender, giving the communist Central Committee heavy sway with our politicians.

Perhaps most brazen of all, China is conducting open cyber war, infiltrating U.S. government and corporate computer networks. 

The largest coordinated cyber attack the world has ever seen came in 2009 when hackers infiltrated the networks of several major corporations, including Northrop Grumman – the creators of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. 

Operation Aurora, as the attack is known, and hundreds of other attacks have been linked to Chinese hacker groups with names like the Elderwood Group and Hidden Lynx. 

According to the Economist, the Virginia-based firm Mandiant traced some of these cyber attacks to a PLA organization they call Unit 61398. 

The Chinese government connection is traceable and undeniable but, once again, there has been no significant response by the U.S. government.

To understand why these events are so unsettling, we must understand the ethical framework in which the Central Committee and the PLA operate. 

Essentially, they have none. 

Their moral compass points toward one guiding star: Chinese dominance. 

One might argue that there are moderates and progressives in China, but that is just a matter of semantics. Those words cannot be taken in the traditional Western context.

A Western military hawk favors direct confrontation for the sake of national defense. In China, the hawks favor outright military expansion, and not just in regard to Taiwan. 

In 2005, China’s former Minister of National Defense allegedly went so far as to recommend an invasion of the United States. 

True or not, such hardline sentiments definitely hover just below the surface of the Chinese military leadership. 

Recently a high-ranking general in China’s nuclear corps appeared at the forefront of a conspiracy of torture and political intimidation aimed at removing less hawkish political rivals. Inexplicably, he remains in command.

Like the hawks, the moderates and progressives in China are not made in the Western image. They are not interested in international cooperation unless it gives China a foothold for gain, and they do not care one whit for human rights. 

Theirs are the voices pushing China’s economic expansion – not for the welfare of the Chinese people, but because they believe economic expansion is the proper way to capture the world’s resources. 

They have the same goal as the hawks. They only differ in their methods.

The full spectrum of Chinese leadership is Machiavellian. You will never hear a single one of them utter the phrase, “Do the right thing,” even in Mandarin. 

The Central Committee and the PLA will lie, cheat, steal, and bully to accomplish their goal of dominance.

The examples listed above are clear evidence, but I can offer my own first hand account. In 2006, I was the Stealth Bomber operations liaison to Valiant Shield – a massive Pacific exercise. 

During a visit by numerous foreign officers, I was cornered by two Chinese generals. With a barrage of rapid-fire questions they attempted to trip me up and get me to reveal classified details about the B-2. 

The episode would have been comical, had the consequences of failure not been so serious. 

A reciprocal attempt by a U.S. general to intimidate a young Chinese officer would have sparked a huge diplomatic incident, but Western officers don’t behave that way. 

The Chinese know that, and like the permissive U.S. market and the conciliatory international policies of the current US administration, they see it as a weakness to be exploited.

How long will we ignore the growing shadow? When will we turn at least some of our attention from the Middle East and acknowledge the talons reaching out from Asia? 

One day there will come a resounding cymbal crash. We will all jump, startled, and then we will stare in horror at the overwhelming form of the shadow dragon – a creature with no ethic beyond feeding its own fire.

James R. Hannibal is a former US Air Force Stealth Bomber pilot and the author of Shadow Catcher from Berkley Books and Brilliance Audio.