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May 21, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Trump readying China response
President Trump is preparing tougher new policies toward China as a result of Beijing’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.

Mr. Trump already has shifted U.S. policies on trade and economic relations, imposing tariffs on Chinese goods and demanding more reciprocal trade relations.

Mr. Pompeo, talking to reporters at the State Department, said the president is considering how to respond to China’s mishandling of the virus that began in Wuhan in December, missteps Mr. Pompeo blamed on the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

China’s government withheld key details about the virus, including samples and details of its infectiousness, and supplied the World Health Organization with incorrect information about the extent of disease’s outbreak and transmissibility, critics say.

China also allowed millions of people from Wuhan to travel around the country and globally during the mid-January Lunar New Year celebrations. Many were infected with the virus and helped spread it.

“I don’t want to get ahead of [Mr. Trump] in terms of talking about how the administration will respond to that, but you can already begin to see the outlines of it,” Mr. Pompeo said Wednesday.

New sanctions related to China’s work to dominate the global market on emerging 5G telecommunications technology and stepped-up efforts to block Chinese control over rare earth mineral supplies needed for high-technology manufacturing are among the new policies, he added.

“We continue to work on this to develop an appropriate way to think about how we can get the Chinese Communist Party and China to behave in a way that’s consistent with how we ask every nation to behave,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Mr. Pompeo stepped up his harsh criticism of the CCP, accusing Beijing of destroying coronavirus samples needed by virus investigators to deal with the global pandemic.

More broadly, Mr. Pompeo criticized what he termed China’s “brutal authoritarian regime” and said longtime efforts by Republican and Democratic administrations to appease that regime had failed.

“For several decades, we thought the regime would become more like us through trade, scientific exchanges, diplomatic outreach, letting them in the [World Trade Organization] as a developing nation,” he said. “That didn’t happen. We greatly underestimated the degree to which Beijing is ideologically and politically hostile to free nations. The whole world is waking up to that fact.”

A recent Pew public opinion poll found that 66% of the American public now has an unfavorable view of China, up from 47% three years ago.

Mr. Pompeo said the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan has prompted more realistic views of communist China.

“The party chose to destroy live virus samples instead of sharing them or asking us to help secure them,” he said.

Additionally, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has stepped up claims for more islets and reefs in the disputed South China Sea, in areas the United States has declared as international waters and China is claiming as its maritime territory.

Chinese gunboats recently sank a Vietnamese fishing boat as part of the waterway dispute and threatened a Malaysian energy survey effort, while declaring a unilateral fishing ban in the region. “The United States condemns these unlawful act,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency made public its plan to build a series of satellites capable of tracking ultra-fast hypersonic missiles, like those deployed by China and Russia.

The program was announced in a draft request for contract proposals from the agency May 11 and provides the first clues to the military’s efforts to track and knock out the new generation of hypersonic missiles — maneuvering weapons that travel 7,000 miles per hour and are faster than many anti-missile interceptors.

The contract notice posted on the SDA website states that adversaries want to undermine American advantages in space by exploiting vulnerabilities in military satellite systems.

“In addition, these potential adversaries are developing and demonstrating multi-domain threats to national security much faster than the U.S. can deploy responsive space-based capabilities,” the proposal states.

The new agency was set up last year to play a key role in identifying threats and building weapons and other capabilities for space warfare. A key first step is creating a sensor and data transport system mainly based in low Earth orbit — about 1,200 miles or less above the planet.

The eight-satellite tracking layer system, when deployed by 2022, will “provide global indications, warning, tracking and targeting of advanced missile threats, including hypersonic missile systems,” the proposal states.

The satellites will provide both wide and medium fields of views and will use infrared sensors “with sufficient sensitivity and processing to detect hypersonic vehicles from low Earth orbit.”

Sensors are viewed by the military as the key to shooting down hypersonic missiles with interceptors, lasers or other weapons.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, until last year the Strategic Command commander, said the Pentagon needs the new satellites closer to Earth than the higher orbit missile-warning satellites now deployed.

“You can’t defend against something that you can’t see,” Gen. Hyten, now vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told SpaceNews at a symposium.

Hypersonic missiles are difficult to track because of their speed and maneuverability. Current U.S. missile defenses were designed to knock out missiles and warheads moving in predictable, non-maneuvering flight paths.

The Air Force on Sunday launched the secretive unmanned space plane known as the X-37B, which analysts say is being developed for space warfare. Officially, the military calls the space plane an orbiting test vehicle.

“The X-37B team continues to exemplify the kind of lean, agile and forward-leaning technology development we need as a nation in the space domain,” said Air Force Gen. John Raymond, Space Force chief of space operations.

The orbiter’s sixth mission is the first with a service module attached to the back of the vehicle for experiments.

No details of its military or weapons work were provided by the Space Command announcement of the launch.

A report by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center outlines Chinese disinformation themes being promoted by Beijing on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The April report analyzed themes put out by Chinese actors, along with complementary disinformation and propaganda employed by Russia and Iran.

“Although these actors regularly engage in disinformation and propaganda operations on a wide variety of geopolitical issues, COVID-19-related disinformation is especially irresponsible and harmful to vulnerable audiences around the globe,” the report said.

The GEC tracked what it calls “a surge” in Chinese government disinformation operations against the U.S. “as a means to veil their poor public health response” to the pandemic.

The operations involved flooding the global information space with false narratives.

“Their current convergence on COVID-19 disinformation has accelerated as the pandemic increasingly impacts the world and these regimes struggle to control public opinion in their own countries,” the report said.

During the period between Jan. 20 and March 24, the GEC noted a number of Chinese disinformation themes, such as that “the virus did not originate in Wuhan,” that the “U.S. is weaponizing crisis for political gain” and the “U.S. is racist.”

The disinformation operations first were published through “fringe” media outlets suspected of being linked to state actors. Later, the same themes were directly mouthed by government officials or by state and proxy media outlets.

As the operations sped up after March, new and more brazen lies were put forth, including that the virus did not originate in China and was a U.S. bioweapon. The disinformation then falsely accused U.S. troops of spreading the virus in China.

For the Chinese, the propaganda also spread the misinformation that “China’s system of government better able to handle virus,” the report said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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