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Beyond Chinese Spy Balloons: Why We Need to Teach East Asian Studies in U.S Homeland Security Programs

The inclusion of East Asian subjects into homeland security education is a bold undertaking, but it is imperative given the reality of our increasingly interconnected global security environment, where viral pathogens, online data, and spy balloons know no borders or boundaries. 

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors, E-3 Sentrys, C-17 Globemaster IIIs, C-130J Herculeses and C-12F Hurons participate in a close formation taxi known as an elephant walk at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, May 5, 2020. This event displayed the ability of the 3rd Wing, 176th Wing and the 477th Fighter Group to maintain constant readiness throughout COVID-19 by Total Force Integration between active-duty, Guard and Reserve units to continue defending the U.S. homeland and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo)

On Feb. 2, the U.S military spotted a Chinese spy balloon over the northern U.S. News of the discovery precipitated an avalanche of reactions from American politicians, pundits, and the general public. Some called for the immediate shooting down of the balloon while others blamed U.S. President Joe Biden for this breach of U.S sovereignty occurring under his watch. China’s blatant violation of U.S airspace stunned many Americans and indicated an increasingly brazen Chinese approach to surveillance of the U.S homeland. 

As an East Asia specialist teaching in a homeland security and emergency preparedness program — hereafter, HSEP — the spy balloon incident confirmed my belief that we need to teach the next generation of homeland security professionals much more about East Asia, especially about Chinese politics and history. 

During a speech in 2022, U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted, “Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order — and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.” In order to prepare the future security professionals for this long-term threat, homeland security education needs to extend beyond the current 9/11 counterterrorism paradigm and include more East Asia-related courses and content.

Current State of HSEP Undergraduate Curriculum

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks fueled the creation of the U.S Department of Homeland Security and spurred the development of higher education infrastructure built around intelligence and counterterrorism. The War on Terror led to the establishment of HSEP undergraduate programs in many public policy schools and institutes. These prepared students for a variety of careers in military, emergency management, cyber, intelligence, and other homeland security-related professions. 

The programs have thus overwhelmingly focused on the Islamist terrorist threat emanating from the Middle East and North Africa. Yet the Department of Homeland Security admits that the terrorism threat has largely shifted to domestic far-right extremism and away from radical Islamist extremism. In addition, U.S foreign policy and grand strategy has increasingly focused on great power competition with one short-term revisionist threat, Russia, and the long-term global competitor, China. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unfortunately shown the world that large-scale conventional wars are not a relic of the past. Similarly, China’s increasingly revanchist claims over Taiwan worry U.S geopolitical planners and strategists.  Finally, North Korea’s rapid nuclear weapons development has strained U.S security interests in the Indo-Pacific region. 

James Ramsay et al identified eight core academic areas for homeland security undergraduate programs: intelligence, law and policy, emergency management, risk analysis, critical infrastructure, strategic planning, terrorism, and environmental security. I propose that we add an additional core academic area of “state actor threats.” This broad category would include geopolitical challenges to U.S homeland security, such as those from China and North Korea. It would prepare future homeland security professionals with historical and politico-cultural knowledge of the major national threats to the U.S homeland. 

In other words, U.S homeland security should not be siloed off from broader international security issues. The Covid-19 pandemic clarified the degree to which domestic situations in mainland China, especially ones mishandled by the Chinese government, can have severe repercussions in the U.S. 

Many homeland security programs seem to be locked into a post-9/11 mentality, where the dominant threat actors are still seen as non-state entities. The threat environment is now more multifaceted and state-centric, and it is increasingly China-focused. Homeland security programs should look beyond the paradigm set by the War on Terror and reinvigorate their curriculum for a changing world. 

Security Threats Posed to U.S Homeland from China and North Korea

China’s increasingly belligerent and coercive actions around the world have alarmed U.S policymakers and intelligence professionals, including here on the U.S homeland. Furthermore, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely cause a catastrophic financial crisis around the world, including here in the U.S. As FBI director Christopher Wray explained in 2021, “The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China.” The Chinese Communist Party’s desire to revise the international rules-based order is not only a foreign policy issue, but also one that affects our domestic institutions and economic interests. The homeland security threats from China primarily lie in the cyber and espionage domains. 

Chinese cyber attacks on U.S private companies are leading to significant intellectual property theft and the weakening of the national economy. According to a report published in 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S. economy has lost approximately $600 billion over a span of more than 20 years to Chinese economic espionage and IP theft. In addition, Chinese cyber attacks on our democratic institutions, such as our election infrastructure, are concerning. In 2020, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said, “China — like Russia, like Iran — they’ve engaged in cyberattacks and phishing and that sort of thing with respect to our election infrastructure, with respect to websites and that sort of thing.” Protecting our critical economic and governmental networks from cyber intrusions by China is crucial from both financial and political standpoints. It is essential for upholding national economic security, the rule of law, and democratic principles in the United States.

Chinese espionage has also occurred away from the cyber domain. For example, in 2016, Chinese citizen Mo Hailong was found digging in an Iowa cornfield, stealing genetically modified seeds from U.S agricultural corporations. This type of economic espionage damages U.S economic interests and undercuts food security. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed the extent to which the U.S relies on Chinese markets for supplies of vital emergency equipment such as medicine, masks, and other medical supplies. Shifting these supply chains to the U.S mainland or to stable U.S-allied nations and away from China is critical for emergency preparedness and mitigating geopolitical risk factors in times of crisis. 

Teaching about East Asia in Homeland Security Education

During the pandemic, incidents of anti-Asian racism skyrocketed across the United States. In addition, the increasingly anti-China rhetoric from U.S. politicians has become one of the bipartisan unifiers during a period of otherwise immense political polarization on many other issues. Therefore, it is imperative that we educate the next generation of homeland security professionals with a complex and non-superficial understanding of China. By focusing on Chinese history, culture, and politics, we can provide students with a nuanced and dynamic framework of interpreting the Chinese security challenge. 

The history and culture of China factors greatly into the CCP’s worldview. The desire to reunify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland is of paramount historical importance to Chinese leadership. In addition, the 19th and 20th century “national humiliation” of China by Western imperialist powers is continuously brought up in CCP official rhetoric as a reason for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Historical injustices and perceived slights of Chinese culture by Western nations animate many of the contemporary Chinese government’s actions. 

Moreover, popular American understanding of North Korea is largely limited to caricatures of the Kim family’s leadership. A deeper explanation of Korean history and culture is necessary for understanding why the two Koreas are the way they are. In addition, the dominant image of Kim Jong Un in U.S culture as a chubby non-threatening leader does not square with the increasingly sophisticated cyber and military threats emanating from North Korea. 

Unfortunately, undergraduate students often misinterpret or Orientalize the Chinese and North Korean governments’ policies and external actions. One of the reasons for this is the limited background knowledge they receive about East Asia in their high school social studies programs. Secondly, East Asia is typically framed as a bizarre, strange, and completely foreign entity in American culture and media. This Orientalist lens of East Asia in broader U.S society contributes to problematic stereotypes and an extremely shallow understanding of the region among many undergraduate students. Cultural competence should be at the forefront of the “state actor threats” area in homeland security education programs. By putting cultural competency at the forefront of this “state actor threats” educational area, we provide the next generation of homeland security professionals with the skills and abilities to respond dynamically and proactively to threats from abroad.  


The inclusion of a “state actor threats” academic area into homeland security education may seem daunting to some instructors, especially those that lack a sophisticated understanding of international affairs. However, homeland security’s interdisciplinary approach can be helpful for this initiative. By leveraging existing political science, area studies, and history courses, homeland security programs can include more elective courses that cover this topic. Moreover, existing courses on terrorism, cyber security policy, and intelligence can include lectures or units that cover the state actor threat and delve deeper into East Asian affairs. 

For example, instructors for terrorism-related courses can present a lesson around the question of whether China should be on the U.S state sponsors of terrorism list. This lesson could focus on China’s long history of human rights violations and the ways in which the CCP leverages its political and economic power abroad. Additionally, students in cyber-related homeland security courses can learn about the unique ways that North Korean hackers evade international sanctions and generate revenue for the regime via cybercrime and other illicit activities. 

The inclusion of East Asian subjects into homeland security education is a bold undertaking, but it is imperative given the reality of our increasingly interconnected global security environment, where viral pathogens, online data, and spy balloons know no borders or boundaries. 

Author Biography

Dr. Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of the book, Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World (Stanford University Press, 2021). 

Written By

Dr. Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of the book, Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World (Stanford University Press, 2021).