In the early 1980s, during a tense period in the cold war, the Soviet Union feared that America and its allies were considering a nuclear strike and went looking for warning signs. The kgb’s list of indicators ranged well beyond the military sphere. Big campaigns to donate blood, the slaughter of livestock and the movement of art might signal that an attack was coming.
Today a new kind of cold war pits America against China. And again analysts are looking for signs of a potential conflict. The most likely flashpoint is Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims and America supports. Were China planning to invade Taiwan, its military preparations would be hard to hide. But before troops begin to muster, other actions, of an economic and financial nature, might signal China’s intent.
The Soviet Union mistook ordinary activities, such as blood drives, for possible indicators of war. When it comes to China, finding signals in the noise is even harder. The country has spent decades improving its armed forces. It routinely stockpiles food. And it has hardened its economy against potential sanctions. All of these actions have fed fears of war—yet they do not necessarily mean that one is imminent. The challenge for Western intelligence agencies, then, is to imagine how China might deviate from this wary baseline in the run-up to an actual attack.