That’s the rather counterintuitive argument made by David Fickling at Bloomberg:
Governments that have detailed knowledge of other countries’ motivations and capabilities are likely to be much more circumspect about the sort of rash actions that can lead to war. That’s one reason why North Korea’s opaque regime can seem so alarming, whereas German-U.S. relations survived revelations of Washington eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone more or less unscathed. In this sense, espionage is just a more shadowy version of the nuclear inspections, Open Skies agreements and joint military drills that routinely build confidence between rival powers.
The fact that the U.S. and China are strategic competitors shouldn’t cause Washington to overreact to China’s attempts to improve its covert knowledge. There’s certainly good reason to strengthen counterintelligence activity and even attempt to turn some double agents (hopefully with more care than was applied in the case of Katrina Leung). But that shouldn’t change the fact that open societies ought to be rather relaxed about the fact they leak information through their pores.
I have any number of problems with that argument and I’ll try to list just a few of them. First, isn’t that actually an argument for considerable openness in international relations, something I agree with? The enormous amount of secret information maintained by the U. S. government is suggestive of bad intentions. All of the official anger at Julian Assange is based on that secret information and what it mostly revealed was that our government does not have good intentions. If Mr. Fickling is right, we should be holding tickertape parades for Assange. That we are not suggests he’s wrong.
Second, the analogy to Germany is incredibly weak. Not only is Germany almost completely disarmed where China ia actively building up its military strength, we’ve been pursuing German foreign policy interests for the better part of the last century. What does Germany have to worry about in us? A reunified Germany, the euro, political union in Europe, and NATO expansion are all much more in Germany’s interest than they are ours. If we’d actually been pursuing our own interests, none of those things would have happened.
Third, since trust is a two-way street doesn’t it suggest that we should have just as aggressive a campaign of clandestine operations against China as they have against us? I don’t recall outcry over American downing of Chinese aircraft, American hacking of Chinese government facilities and companies, or American scholars found to be agents of the U. S. government. Maybe we’re just better at keeping secrets than the Chinese but, frankly, I doubt it.
Fourth, knowledge and trust are not synonymous. It is simply not possible to know how much you don’t know. Consequently, there will always be a basis for suspicion. That the Chinese government does not trust us is not only an indication that we are not trustworthy but that the Chinese government is not trustworthy.
Therefore in summary I’d say that official secrets are bad but sometimes necessary and that penetration of official secrets by the Chinese government or anyone else, notional friend or hypothetical enemy, is always bad.