WSJ: Say, why are Chinese nationals trying to infiltrate military bases in the US?

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Ho hum, nothing to see here. Just another instance in which the country that Joe Biden dismissed as a “competitor” wants an up-close look at America’s military installations, even more up-close than afforded to China’s giant spy balloon — the one that Biden let cross over the US before finally shooting it down.


According to the WSJ, however, their latest strategy is no one-off. As many as 100 instances or more of attempted intrusions by Chinese nationals have taken place “in recent years,” either by deceit or by stealth. While a handful of these are benign — Google Maps misdirections — others are far more worrisome:

Chinese nationals, sometimes posing as tourists, have accessed military bases and other sensitive sites in the U.S. as many as 100 times in recent years, according to U.S. officials, who describe the incidents as a potential espionage threat.

The Defense Department, FBI and other agencies held a review last year to try to limit these incidents, which involve people whom officials have dubbed gate-crashers because of their attempts—either by accident or intentionally—to get onto U.S. military bases and other installations without proper authorization. They range from Chinese nationals found crossing into a U.S. missile range in New Mexico to what appeared to be scuba divers swimming in murky waters near a U.S. government rocket-launch site in Florida. …

Officials described incidents in which Chinese nationals say they have a reservation at an on-base hotel. In a recent case, a group of Chinese nationals claiming they were tourists, tried to push past guards at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, saying they had reservations at a commercial hotel on the base. The base is home to the Army’s 11th Airborne Division, which is focused on Arctic warfare.

These cases at times occur in rural areas where officials indicate there is little tourism far from a commercial airport. The individuals use what appears to be scripted language when confronted by security guards, according to officials familiar with the tactics. When stopped, the Chinese nationals say they are tourists and have lost their way.


The idea, according to one expert, is to use relatively valueless pawns in large numbers to overwhelm US security. If they get stopped, they use that scripted language to claim error, and potentially deal with trespassing charges. If enough of them get through, however, China’s intelligence service can start collecting some serious data on the layout, security, and purposes of each military installation and sensitive national-security site.

You know … like China got with its “weather balloon” as the current administration allowed it to pass over the US, unchallenged. Only in this case, their agents can see far more and likely have at least some training on what to look for once inside these facilities.

What can be done about these intrusions? Probably not much. In order to prosecute suspects for espionage, there has to be clear evidence of actual intelligence gathering. The people stopped at the facilities haven’t gotten far enough to have collected any sensitive information, which means that they are trespassers — and we barely prosecute trespassing these days at all.

On the other hand, a few times the US has caught them red-handed, so to speak. Remember the woman from China who got caught in Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in 2019? She had two passports, four cellphones, $8000 in US and Chinese currency, and other interesting electronics on her at the time:


A Chinese woman arrested for entering President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort without authorization had $8,000 in U.S. and Chinese currency and a cache of electronic devices in her hotel room, according to a prosecutor who spoke at the woman’s detention hearing.

Yujing Zhang 32 years old, had a device that can detect hidden cameras, nine USB drives and five SIM cards in her room, among other piece of equipment, the prosecutor said Monday.

Zhang got eight months in prison, apparently because she didn’t have time to collect any intel that would have led to espionage charges. At the time, the incident appeared to be a one-off, but the next year three Chinese nationals got a year in prison for infiltrating a naval air station in Key West. That installation does highly sensitive intelligence work, according to the WSJ. And in another incident in the same time frame, the US expelled two Chinese “diplomats” for attempting to breach a base in Virginia, which the NYT called part of a developing pattern for China’s “diplomatic” personnel:

The American government secretly expelled two Chinese Embassy officials this fall after they drove on to a sensitive military base in Virginia, according to people with knowledge of the episode. The expulsions appear to be the first of Chinese diplomats suspected of espionage in more than 30 years.

American officials believe at least one of the Chinese officials was an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover, said six people with knowledge of the expulsions. The group, which included the officials’ wives, evaded military personnel pursuing them and stopped only after fire trucks blocked their path. …

In recent months, Chinese officials with diplomatic passports have become bolder about showing up unannounced at research or government facilities, American officials said, with the infiltration of the military base only the most remarkable instance.


Now it appears that China has changed its tactics. Rather than use diplomatic cover, they have opted to throw a large number of disposable personnel at our bases to see what sticks and what doesn’t. It’s a Mission: Impossible scenario, in which their Secretary can easily disavow their personnel if they get caught, which they can’t do with those assigned diplomatic cover.

So what is being done now to counter this? The WSJ reports that the Department of Defense is testing and tightening security at all its facilities, which is a good start. When was the last time we threw the book at such intruders, however? The Trump administration seemed at least willing to do so in the incidents of 2019-20, but this report doesn’t mention anything more recent. Perhaps it’s time for more expulsions — and a public recognition that China is not just a “competitor.”

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