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Recent Potential Chinese Collection Activity Targeting DoD Installations

An investigative journalism piece published 04 September in the Wall Street Journal brought newfound attention to a phenomenon that has been experienced by Department of Defense (DoD) installations for a number of years: increasing suspicious activity involving Chinese nationals. These Chinese nationals (sometimes referred to as “gate crashers”) have repeatedly attempted to gain access to DoD installations. In many of these cases, Chinese nationals claim to be tourists, claim to be lost, or claim to be attempting to access businesses located onboard the installation (such as gas stations or restaurants). In a few cases, Chinese nationals have disregarded gate guards’ commands and proceeded onto installations without permission or have otherwise trespassed and been discovered on installation property. A common concern across all of these cases is the potential for espionage collection.1

This paper will provide a brief overview of China’s approach to espionage and national security laws that allow the Chinese government to compel its citizens to assist in espionage. The paper will then examine the recent phenomenon of potential Chinese collection activity targeting DoD installations through the lens of three recent case studies.

China engages in a wide-ranging “whole of society” approach to espionage that leverages private businesses and citizens in addition to traditional espionage efforts and cyberattacks. To this end, China’s government has implemented national security laws that can compel Chinese nationals to act as non-traditional collectors. In particular, Article 7 of the 2017 National Intelligence Law specifies that “all organizations and citizens shall, according to the law, provide support and assistance to and cooperate with the State intelligence work, and keep secret the State intelligence work that they know.” An interpretation by a Swedish business law firm concluded that the 2017 National Intelligence Law “applies to all Chinese citizens, and because [the 2017 National Intelligence Law] does not appear to have an explicit geographical limitation, it could be construed to apply to all Chinese citizens even when residing outside of China.”2

While it is unclear whether individual Chinese citizens are being compelled to conduct espionage against the DoD, China has long utilized non-traditional collectors (loosely defined as individuals who are not part of a formal intelligence agency, yet still act in support of a foreign government) in U.S. academia and business settings in order to steal sensitive research and trade secrets. Non-traditional collectors may include businesspeople, students, professors, and conference attendees. The sheer number of these individuals provides the Chinese government with a wide pool of potential sources of information who may also draw limited suspicion due to legitimate business/academic reasons to access sensitive information.

In February 2022, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray stated that the Bureau was opening a China-related counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours on average. Many of these cases involved espionage activities targeting U.S. businesses and academia. Based on this pattern, it is likely that China also utilizes non-traditional collectors in espionage activities targeting the DoD to some degree.3

Case Studies
The following case studies highlight specific events (or clusters of events) related to potential Chinese collection activity targeting DoD installations. These case studies were primarily selected due to the availability of open source media reporting surrounding each event (or cluster of events). A number of additional incidents could have resulted in significant espionage concerns; however, it is likely that details surrounding such incidents would be sensitive and/or classified, with reporting restricted to official government channels.

The potential collection activity detailed in the following case studies includes suspicious photography, possible probing of security, and other concerns that may appear relatively minor in nature. However, the aggregation of numerous disparate pieces of information could provide an adversary such as China with valuable intelligence regarding DoD installations, personnel, and operations (to include information which could be utilized in follow-on espionage efforts).

2019 Virginia Military Base Incident
According to open source media reporting, in September 2019, two (2) Chinese embassy officials and their wives drove onto an unspecified military base in the Norfolk, VA area that hosts special operations forces. In the incident, the Chinese individuals arrived at the installation’s gate, but were denied access by a gate guard, who instructed them to turn around and exit the installation (a standard procedure). Instead of following these instructions, the vehicle proceeded further onto the installation, until they were reportedly stopped by fire trucks. Once detained, the individuals claimed to not have understood the English instructions and stated that they had simply gotten lost.4,5

Open source media reporting indicated that the embassy officials were secretly expelled from the U.S. just a few months later, with at least one of the officials believed to be an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover. Anonymous U.S. military officials quoted in media reporting believed that the incident was a test of security and theorized that a more senior intelligence officer could have been sent on a subsequent mission onto the base if security was perceived to be inadequate.4,5

While the installation was not specified in media reporting, the Norfolk, VA area is home to a dense concentration of DoD assets and personnel, particularly the U.S. Navy. Media reports alluding to the presence of special operations forces could indicate a nexus to Naval Special Warfare units (such as the Navy SEALs), which are publicly known to be located at installations in the Norfolk, VA area. The U.S. Navy’s capabilities are likely a priority collection target for Chinese intelligence actors due to rising tensions involving Taiwan and the South China Sea, as well as the role U.S. naval forces would play in a regional conflict.6

2019-2020 Naval Air Station Key West Incidents
Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West (located in Key West, FL) was the subject of a potential espionage incident in December 2019 perpetrated by Liao Lyuyou, a 27-year-old Chinese native. During the incident, Liao took photos of government installations and sensitive military equipment after illegally accessing the base. Bystanders/witnesses warned Liao that the area he had entered was restricted, but he continued to trespass and take photos. After being confronted by military personnel, Liao claimed he only wanted to take pictures of the sunrise. He then gave the responding personnel permission to search his camera, where photos of several government buildings were found, including the installation’s Truman Annex. After being arrested on 26 December 2019, Liao pleaded guilty to illegally entering a restricted area. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison.7,8

Just a week later, on 04 January 2020, two (2) men were arrested for a similar incident at NAS Key West. 25-year-old Jielun Zhang and 24-year-old Yuhao Wang (both of whom are Chinese nationals) faced charges of illegally entering a restricted area (the same charge faced by Liao in the preceding incident). Zhang was ultimately sentenced to 12 months in prison, while Yuhao was sentenced to nine (9) months in prison. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the men approached the gate at NAS Key West’s Sigsbee Annex but had no military identification. After being turned around and instructed to leave the facility, instead the men stayed onboard the installation for an additional 30 minutes. After security forces obtained consent to see the cameras and cell phones that the two (2) men possessed, they found images of U.S. military structures on Fleming Key, along with images of the Sigsbee Annex property.7,8

NAS Key West is potentially an alluring target for espionage efforts due to various notable tenants, to include Joint Interagency Task Force-South (headquartered at the Truman Annex photographed by Liao), as well as various missions such as supporting training for aviation and special operations units. In recent years, China has expanded its military/intelligence footprint in the Caribbean, particularly in Cuba, which is located less than 100 miles from Key West, FL. As a result, China would likely seek to collect information on DoD assets throughout the region that would be in position to counter any Chinese military/intelligence activities, to include NAS Key West.9,10

Recent Alaska Incidents
Recent potential Chinese collection activity targeting DoD installations in Alaska (a strategic location due to increasing competition in the Arctic) highlights China’s possible interest in the area’s assets. Chinese citizens claiming to be tourists have reportedly made multiple recent attempts to gain access to military facilities in Alaska. For example, open source media reports highlight incidents at the Army’s Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, including a case where a vehicle with Chinese citizens attempted to pass guards at a security checkpoint. Once the vehicle was stopped and searched, a drone was found inside, and the Chinese nationals claimed they were lost tourists. Reports also note that there have been incidents where Chinese nationals arrived stating they had a reservation at an on-base hotel, including recently at Fort Wainwright.1,11

According to the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, China looks to expand its influence in the Arctic through economic, diplomatic, scientific, and military activities. Alaska and the greater Arctic region host many DoD facilities and assets that may be the target of Chinese “gate crashers.” In addition to Fort Wainwright, Alaska is home to two (2) other large military bases, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richard in Anchorage and Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, and several smaller installations. Additional DoD assets in Alaska include the Air Force’s F-22s and F-35s, radars and missiles that could defend against nuclear attack at the Army’s Fort Greely, and Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak.11,12,13

The DoD has increasingly invested resources in Alaska and transferred assets to the region over the past few years, highlighting the U.S.’ objective of enhancing the capabilities required to defend American interests in the Arctic. For instance, in June 2022, the Army activated the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to execute expeditionary operations within the Indo-Pacific theater, conduct Multi-Domain Operations in the Arctic, and defend critical infrastructure in support of homeland defense. Furthermore, the U.S. has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the port at Nome to harbor large vessels in Western Alaska, potentially servicing Coast Guard and Navy vessels in the Arctic Circle. Lastly, the DoD engages in military exercises in Alaska, including Northern Edge. This large-scale, biannual military exercise, which took place recently in May 2023, involved thousands of U.S. servicemembers, five (5) ships, more than 150 aircraft, and joint, multinational, and multi-domain operations with United Kingdom and Australian servicemembers. These assets and operations are likely highly appealing targets for adversaries such as China.11,12,13,14,15

Some of the incidents detailed in this paper are likely low-level intelligence collection by individuals who may be acting in support of the Chinese government (to include potentially being compelled to support the Chinese government by law). It is also possible that some recent incidents involving Chinese nationals involve legitimate misunderstandings. Some operatives, civilian or otherwise, may be caught, but it can be difficult to prove that they are engaged in espionage. Even those who are confronted are able to gather details on an installation’s security posture by engaging in probing activities. A few may even be able to retrieve intelligence that becomes actionable when combined with information gathered through other intelligence collection avenues. It is incumbent upon DoD installations to maintain a vigilant security posture and take even seemingly innocuous encounters seriously, as China’s “whole of society” espionage campaign against the U.S. and the DoD will almost certainly continue to increase in the coming years.


1. Lubold, G. (2023, September 4). Chinese Gate-Crashers at U.S. Bases Spark Espionage Concerns. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

2. Mannheimer Swartling. (2019, January). Applicability of Chinese National Intelligence Law to Chinese and non-Chinese Entities. Retrieved from

3. Williams, P. (2022, February 2). Full interview: FBI Director Wray on efforts to halt China’s spying. NBC News. Retrieved from

4. Pearman, M. (2019, December 16). 2 Chinese officials suspected of spying on local military base. WAVY. Retrieved from

5. Cole, D. (2019, December 16). New York Times: US ‘secretly expelled’ Chinese officials who entered ‘sensitive’ military base. CNN. Retrieved from

6. United States Naval Special Warfare Command. (n.d.). NSW Guidebook. Retrieved from

7. Flores, R., & Weisfeldt, S. (2020, June 5). 3 Chinese nationals sentenced to prison for taking photos at Florida naval base. CNN. Retrieved from

8. Lolo, S. (2020, June 4). 3 Chinese nationals sentenced to prison for illegal photography at Key West naval base. 12 News. Retrieved from

9. Commander, Navy Region Southeast. (n.d.). NAS Key West. Retrieved from

10. Xue, X. (2023, June 29). Analysts: China’s plans for Cuba may go beyond spy base. VOA. Retrieved from

11. Vanden Brook, T. (2023, May 31). Suspected Chinese spies, disguised as tourists, tried to infiltrate Alaskan military bases. USA Today. Retrieved from

12. The White House. (2022, October). National Strategy for the Arctic Region. The White House. Retrieved from

13. Baker, M. (2022, March 27). With Eyes on Russia, the U.S. Military Prepares for an Arctic Future. The New York Times. Retrieved from

14. Ellis, T. (2023, June 8). Fort Wainwright apprehended ‘Chinese spies,’ Sullivan says. Alaska Public Media. Retrieved from

15. Department of Defense. (n.d.). 11th Airborne Division. Department of Defense. Retrieved from

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