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Jan. 17, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

Navy chief in China
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson visited China this week amid heightened tensions over naval operations in the South China Sea, trade differences and the prosecution of a senior executive from a Chinese telecommunications company.

U.S. news media were relatively silent on the admiral’s four-day visit, which ended Wednesday.

Chinese state media, however, took a hard line on the visit and demanded that the United States change its stance on the South China Sea and Taiwan.

The Communist Party newspaper Global Times stated Monday that “increasing concerns about future military friction between the two powers have emerged.”

The report went on to issue a provocative statement timed for the four-star U.S. admiral’s visit: “It is definitely wrong if the U.S. thinks it has more rights than China in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits. If dialogue fails to help Washington understand this, Beijing needs to take practical action to help the U.S. correct its vision.

“China must have the ability to make rivals pay unbearable costs when the country is forced into offshore combat and also the unquestionable capability of strategic nuclear counterattack,” the Global Times said.

The newspaper, a major anti-U.S. propaganda organ, also said China is willing to negotiate but “will not tolerate others crossing its bottom line.”

The United States has demanded that Beijing remove advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles deployed on disputed islands in the South China Sea. Washington is also building closer ties with Taiwan through arms sales and higher-level official visits.

China regards U.S. military visits like that of the chief of naval operations as a key element of Beijing’s strategic influence operation designed to provide misleading or false information about the People’s Liberation Army, the Communist Party-ruled military that is nothing like its American counterpart.

Pentagon policymakers for at least a decade have promoted military exchanges as a way to attempt to “build trust” with the PLA, something the Chinese military is incapable of doing because of the harsh anti-U.S. posture of the ruling Communist Party. Chinese leaders view the United States through a Marxist-Leninist lens as an imperialist power to be vanquished, if not through nonmilitary means then, ultimately, by force.

Critics have said the overemphasis on military exchanges undermines American and allied efforts to pressure China into changing its aggressive behavior in the South and East China seas. In the East China Sea, China is demanding that the Japanese-claimed Senkaku Islands are its territory. The United States has repeatedly announced that the Senkakus are covered under the U.S.-Japanese defense treaty.

In the South China Sea, however, the United States in the past has sought to stay neutral in sovereignty disputes, a position that has emboldened Beijing.

The commander of the Indo-Pacific Command stated in congressional testimony last year that the festering dispute of man-made islands in the sea has resulted in China’s ability to control the entire strategic waterway, which carries up to $5 trillion annually in trade.

Adm. Richards visited the PLA Navy Command College on Tuesday in Nanjing and took part in a roundtable discussion.

In an indirect reference to China’s claims to owning large swaths of the South China Sea, Adm. Richardson emphasized the lawful and safe operations that the U.S. Navy conducts around the world.

“The U.S. Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all,” he said in Nanjing. “This will not change. Enhancing the prosperity of all is the direct result of a secure and orderly maritime domain.”

During the visit, Adm. Richardson met with PLA Navy commander Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong and held what were described as “frank and substantive” discussions on maritime and air safety under international law. The two officials also discussed future opportunities for joint naval engagements.

Adm. Shen cut short a visit to the United States in September after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a senior Chinese general and the PLA’s Equipment Department for violating U.S. sanctions that seek to punish Russia for its takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Under a major reorganization that created five Chinese military regional commands, the commander of the navy was demoted from full admiral to vice admiral, a diminution in stature that reflects the increased power of regional commanders.

“It important for all military, law enforcement, and civilian vessels and aircraft, including those in the PLA Navy, the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, to operate in a safe and professional manner, in accordance with international law,” Adm. Richardson said. “Consistent operations and behavior are critical to preventing miscalculation.”

Reports from the Middle East say the Turkish government is covertly sending arms to Libya in a bid to further destabilize the failed North African state.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Mismari, a spokesman for the general command of the Libyan army, said a shipment of Turkish weapons was seized at the Libyan port of Misrata. He said the Turkish weapons shipment was seized there Jan. 7 and that it was not the first time that Turks were caught violating U.N. sanctions.

The general told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya satellite news network in a statement Jan. 8 that two recent arms shipments — an earlier cache was intercepted Dec. 18 at a port called Khoms — are signs that the “Turkish administration is following a new scenario to destabilize Libya dependent on assassinations, as these shipments have ammunition, weapons and silencers used in assassinations, after previously sending explosives and combat bombs found by the Libyan army with terrorist groups in Benghazi and Darnah.”

Gen. al-Mismari stated that the large weapons transfers from Turkey “go beyond sabotaging Libya and prolonging its crisis but also target the security of neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Algeria.”

The general described the arms program as a “dangerous plan” of the Islamist government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that is “based on supporting extremist movements, [and] extends to all Arab countries.”

A Libyan army officer investigating the Khoms arms shipment was the target of an assassination attempt, and Gen. al-Mismari said he believes the Ankara government was behind the attack. The assassination attempt is aimed at shutting down probes of the weapons shipments through Turkish agents and Libyan militias, “most notably the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” he said.

The general urged the U.N. Security Council to investigate Turkey’s actions against Libya.

Current U.N. sanctions prohibit sending arms to Libya, a country that descended into chaos after U.S.-backed NATO intervention in 2011 ordered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Obama administration.

The Defense Intelligence Agency released a report Tuesday called “China’s Military Power” that harks back to the Cold War and the Reagan administration, which produced a similar report on the Soviet Union’s military.

The DIA noted the similarities in a preface stating that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger first tasked the agency to produce an unclassified review of Soviet military strength in 1981. “In the spirit of ‘Soviet Military Power,’ DIA began in 2017 to produce a series of unclassified defense intelligence overviews of major foreign military challenges we face,” the report states.

The first relaunched DIA power report was on Russia in June 2017.

DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr. said of this week’s China report: “This product and other reports in this series are intended to inform our public, our leaders, the national security community and partner nations about the challenges we face in the 21st century.”

China expert Rick Fisher said the 140-page DIA report was the original intention of those in Congress who legislated what would become the annual report on the Chinese military. That report never achieved the status of the DIA version and was lacking for decades in content and direction, as well as a shortage of photos and illustrations.

“While it is certainly welcome that after 20 years the Trump administration has decided finally that the ‘China Military Power’ report will now follow ‘in the spirit’ of the ‘Soviet Military Power’ report, as noted in Lt. Gen. Ashley’s preface, it is also a fact that many in the China watching community have waited for this for two decades,” said Mr. Fisher, who is with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Mr. Fisher said in the global communications age it is imperative that the Pentagon take further steps to translate the report into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Russian, German and French, at a minimum, and have the translations widely distributed.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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