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January 9, 2014
Notes from the Pentagon

Hunting a Politburo tiger
One of China’s most powerful security leaders is facing corruption charges, according to China analysts inside and outside the government.

The fate of Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member and until recently China’s security czar, is being watched closely by U.S. intelligence agencies concerned about the Beijing regime’s stability.

Expectations are growing that Mr. Zhou will be charged with illegal activities related to his financial dealings, namely taking bribes. But analysts say the corruption charges would mask much more serous political charges, including high crimes such as “factionalism” and attempting to engineer a takeover within the Communist Party leadership.

In China, the targeting of such high-level officials is dubbed “hunting tigers,” as opposed to lower-level corruption among “flies.”

Before he retired in 2012, Mr. Zhou was one of China’s most powerful leaders as part of the nine-member Standing Committee, the collective dictatorship that rules China.

The new Standing Committee has no security chief. China announced plans to create a National Security Council-like structure at the top ranks of the party.

Reports of a corruption probe of Mr. Zhou have circulated among China’s elite for several months. A clear indicator of the matter’s sensitivity is Beijing’s tightened censorship on the Internet. In recent weeks, all searches for Zhou Yongkang have been blocked on major Chinese search engines.

The political noose tightened around Mr. Zhou on Dec. 19. That was when authorities announced that one of his close aides, current Deputy Minister of Public Security Li Dongsheng, was under investigation for what authorities said were “serious violations of party rules and state laws.” Mr. Li is one of China’s most hard-line security chiefs and a leading figure behind the nationwide crackdown on domestic dissent.

“Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop,” one government analyst said of Mr. Zhou’s possible arrest.

Among the sensational reports about Mr. Zhou are that he has been placed under house arrest, and that he took bribes to arrange the release of a murderer facing execution.

Others say Mr. Zhou is suspected of orchestrating The New York Times report published in October 2012 that revealed large-scale financial abuse by the family of Wen Jiabao. Under Mr. Wen’s premiership, his family amassed a fortune worth $2.7 billion. The leak angered Chinese leaders, who have blocked or threatened to block visas for reporters for The Times and other U.S. news outlets in retaliation.

The most explosive reports about Mr. Zhou, however, are political. Published reports in China since November claimed that Mr. Zhou tried to carry out a coup d’etat against President Xi Jinping. One report said investigators are looking into whether Mr. Zhou plotted two assassinations, a failed attempt against Mr. Xi and a successful hit in 2012 against Lt. Gen. Yuan Zhibo, deputy commander of the Chengdu military region, whose death was announced in May 2012.

The coup rumors were bolstered after Mr. Xi disappeared from public view for several weeks in the fall of 2012. During the disappearance, Mr. Xi skipped a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, further fueling the rumors. Two other “tigers” under investigation and who may be linked to Mr. Zhou include Li Chingxi, a senior official in Sichuan province, and Yang Gang, deputy director of the Committee for Economic Affairs of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Beijing’s mock parliament.

Mr. Zhou also has close ties to China’s oil sector, having served as head of the state-run China National Petroleum Corp. in the late 1990s and later as minister of land and natural resources. Analysts say the corruption charges could be related to China’s foreign oil purchases.

Michael Pillsbury, a China analyst with the Hudson Institute, said the Zhou investigation appears linked to Mr. Xi’s effort to consolidate power through an anti-corruption campaign.

“Zhou’s ouster would be a major blow to the notion that there are no factions within the Chinese leadership,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “He has been involved in two of China’s most important sectors — energy and security — and his arrest would cement Xi Jinping’s hold on power.”

U.S. intelligence analysts said al Qaeda’s takeover of two Iraqi cities in Anbar province is an outgrowth of a jailbreak orchestrated last summer by the terrorist network.

Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), carried out the sophisticated attack on two Iraqi prisons in mid-July, freeing some 500 prisoners, including large numbers of al Qaeda terrorists and senior leaders.

Those escaped prisoners are now the backbone of the forces controlling Ramadi and Fallujah under the black flag of al Qaeda.

The July attacks took place at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and a prison near Baghdad called Al Taji.

The military operation was carefully planned and involved dozens of fighters equipped with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. The attacking forces also used suicide car bombs to breach security barriers.

Before the prison raids, al Qaeda in Iraq was viewed as severely weakened. The hundreds of escaped prisoners strengthened the group that now is destabilizing Anbar and threatening the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Al Qaeda in Iraq now has an estimated 3,000 fighters, many of whom are controlling Ramadi and Fallujah.

Additionally, the lack of U.S. support — the Obama administration has promised to speed up deliveries of missiles but has ruled out sending troops — is prompting neighboring Iran to offer its military support.

Iran’s Islamist regime gradually has been increasing its strategic influence in Iraq through Mr. al-Maliki’s pro-Shiite policies. For example, Iraq has become a major transit route for Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps fighters on their way to fight in Syria’s civil war on behalf of the Bashar Assad government.

The escaped terrorists in July were described by U.S. officials as hardened first- and second-generation al Qaeda terrorists who settled in western Iraq, including Ameriya, Samarra, Fallujah and Ramadi.

Iraqi government forces failed to recapture the two cities, Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday.

“Security forces and armed tribesmen tried last night to enter areas controlled by the ISIS in the south of the city,” a police captain in Ramadi was quoted as saying by the press agency.

The al Qaeda takeover followed an incident Dec. 30, when Sunnis were angered that government forces cleared protest camps near Ramadi. Al Qaeda seized on the Sunni anger to foment an uprising.

Mr. al-Maliki has ordered to the army to retake the cities and is giving Anbar tribal militias time to take steps to oust the terrorists.

CIA report backs Japan
China and Japan are locked in a heated dispute over the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets said to contain large undersea reserves of gas and oil.

Japan has claimed the islands since the end of World War II, but China claims them as the Diaoyu.

The dispute heightened a year ago after Tokyo purchased several of the islands from private Japanese owners in an attempt to settle the dispute. Instead, the Chinese government set off nationalist anti-Japan riots.

In November, tensions increased after China declared an air defense identification zone covering the islands. Japan, South Korea and the United States said they do not recognize the Chinese zone.

A declassified CIA intelligence report from May 1971 — “The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Oil Under Troubled Waters?” — makes clear that the islands are Japanese.

The report stated that China’s claims to the islands date to the Ming dynasty as early as 1403. The CIA then said the Senkakus are part of Japan’s Ryuku Islands, which have been Japanese for centuries.

“In contrast, it is likely that the earliest Japanese references to the islets were made sometime in the late 19th Century,” the report said. “Japanese involvement with the Ryukus, however, is dated from around 1166, the year of the first king of Okinawa, whose father was a Japanese nobleman in exile.”

Former State Department China analyst John Tkacik said the CIA report, declassified in 2007, is a “pretty conclusive assessment.”

“The Senkakus are, and always were, Japanese, and Taiwan historical claims were fabrications,” he said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.

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