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July 20, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. Indo-Pacific commander says Chinese invasion of Taiwan would fail

By Bill Gertz
Amid growing threats by China to attack Taiwan, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said on Tuesday he is confident U.S. forces could prevent a military takeover of the island state.

Adm. John Aquilino, the top officer in charge of deterring a conflict with China over Taiwan, also told a security conference that he does not currently have all the forces he needs if war broke out in the Taiwan Strait.

“That said, with what we have today, I’m confident that they would fail,” Adm. Aquilino said of a Chinese invasion.

The four-star admiral was asked at an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum about China’s timetable for seeking to take over Taiwan, which Beijing claims is part of its sovereign territory.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has already indicated that the military should be prepared for military action by 2027, the admiral noted.

“All right, those are his words, not ours,” Adm. Aquilino said. “Now, my job is to prevent that conflict. And we do that and work each and every day in order to prevent conflict.”

If 2027 is Beijing‘s target date, the U.S. military needs to be ready for a conflict today, he said, adding that the military is bolstering partnerships with Taiwan and other states in the region.

Adm. Aquilino said he has made urgent requests for “a number of items” needed for strengthening military forces in the region, requests that are supported by Pentagon leaders.

“They are aligned to a strategy-based budget focused on the China challenge,” he said.

Asked what would prompt an invasion by China, Adm. Aquilino said Beijing has several “red lines,” one of which would be a formal declaration of independence by Taipei.

Taiwan is a democratic-governed island that broke with the mainland in 1949 during a civil war between nationalists and communists. The two major political parties in Taiwan are the pro-unification Nationalists and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, currently in power.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan include about $19 billion for the island’s armed forces, but much of that has been delayed in delivery, raising concerns in Congress. Adm. Aquilino said much of that amount is related to Taiwan’s purchase of new F-16 jets.

The U.S. military in the Pacific is readying forces to be in a position of strength, and to convince allies and partners to operate jointly.

Japan’s government has not said publicly if its military would join in the defense of Taiwan. Australia’s government has also declined to commit to a U.S.-led defense of the island.

Adm. Aquilino said China is not integrating into the U.S.-led geopolitical order and is seeking to overturn that order in ways solely beneficial to Beijing. He cited China’s Global Security Initiative, which the commander said is a vague outline of how China plans to overturn the global order and what it would do.

“Well, the deeds that I see look like this: A Chinese spy balloon flies directly over the continental United States. If that’s what the Global Security Initiative looks like under Chinese rules, I’m pretty sure that’s unacceptable to all nations. It’s certainly unacceptable to the United States,” Adm. Aquilino said.

China has also ignored the ruling of an international tribunal that rejected Beijing’s claims to own most of the South China Sea. China is also continuing to threaten the Philippines, which brought the legal claims, Adm. Aquilino said.

“So, if the international rules-based order under the Global Security Initiative just means as long as [China] likes the outcome, then that’s the rules. We ought to all be concerned about that,” he said.

Asked if U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine have limited his efforts to deter China, Adm. Aquilino said no arms have been pulled from his theater of operations for Ukraine.

China threat to electrical grid ‘alarming’
China has conducted activities inside the U.S. electric grid that pose a threat to the security of the power transmission system, an industry executive told Congress this week.

Manny Cancel, chief of the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center and senior vice president, North American Electric Reliability Corp., warned that Chinese and other nation-state hackers can use cyberattacks to penetrate and shut down the electric grid, a three-sector system that distributes power throughout the country.

“Certainly the Chinese activities … are quite alarming,” Mr. Cancel told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations on Tuesday. “China continues to demonstrate how patient they are, how stealthy they are, and, [as] you’ve seen in recent attacks, they’re actually quite adept at obfuscating what they are trying to do.”

Mr. Cancel described China’s role in the cyberattack on Microsoft dubbed Volt Typhoon. The software giant said that its computer networks running critical infrastructure in the United States were covertly penetrated by hackers.

The attack was attributed to “a state-sponsored actor based in China that typically focuses on espionage and information gathering,” Microsoft said in a statement in May. The attacks seek to disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia region during future crises.

Mr. Cancel said the Typhoon Volt hackers got into electric grid networks and were “living off the land” — conducting reconnaissance and seeking out cyber vulnerabilities.

The private North American Electric Reliability Corp. works closely with the Energy Department and U.S. intelligence agencies in alerting members to threats to the electric grid. Most electric companies in the United States are not owned by the federal government, and critics have said that private companies have not done enough to strengthen security against foreign attacks.

Mr. Cancel said the threats appear to be greater from China than from Russia, which has also been known to penetrate critical infrastructure networks in the United States.

Russia has used cyberattacks in the past to knock out power to Ukraine and “could use those capabilities here as well,” he said.

China and Russia “both have the capability [to attack the electric grid] and we see a lot of activity from both of them,” Mr. Cancel said.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the Chinese government has increased its capabilities to disrupt critical U.S. infrastructure, posing “an immediate and immense threat to our national security.”

The Washington state Republican cited reports of recent Chinese hacking operations that broke into email accounts of officials at the Commerce and State departments.

“Attacks like this embolden China. Imagine what is possible if [China] hacks our grid,” she said. “They could shut down power to key national security facilities, like military bases, they could prevent power from getting to hospitals, cause widespread blackouts, and prevent critical energy resources from getting to the people who need them most.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning declined to address the assertions made at the hearing, but said China itself is a victim of cyberattacks and Beijing opposes any form of cyberattack.

“The U.S. has carried out indiscriminate, large-scale cyberattacks against other countries over the years,” she said. “The U.S. Cyber Force Command blatantly declared last year that the critical infrastructure of other countries is a legitimate target for U.S. cyberattacks. Such moves have raised concern.”

Chinese spying involves ‘hundreds of thousands’ of collectors
China’s intelligence services operate the world’s largest spy apparatus and employ hundreds of thousands of people to gather intelligence, ranging from government secrets to business information, according to a new report by British intelligence authorities.

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Services, known by the acronym MI-6, identified the Ministry of State Security as the main civilian Chinese spy service working directly for the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, headed by President Xi Jinping.

Details on Chinese intelligence were contained in a 222-page report produced by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, the legislative oversight arm. SIS Chief Richard Moore disclosed in July 2022 that China’s intelligence services are “extraordinarily well-resourced,” the report said.

“I mean there are hundreds of thousands of civil intelligence officers, let alone their military capability,” he said.

China’s People’s Liberation Army also conducts large spying operations and is under the CCP Central Military Commission, also led by Mr. Xi.

The [PLA] Strategic Support Force, set up in 2016, is China’s [signals Intelligence] agency and has responsibility for the PLA’s previously disparate cyber and SIGINT capabilities (e.g. defensive cyber operations, disruptive and destructive cyber effects, cyber espionage, SIGINT collection and technology research),” the report said. “It is a highly capable organization: GCHQ cites China as being ‘alongside Russia, the most capable cyber adversary we face and they put significant effort into it.’”

PLA human spying operations “persistently and aggressively target government, military and commercial interests across the world, deploying covert tradecraft,” the report said.

A 2018 U.S. government report said the MSS deployed around 40,000 intelligence officers abroad and more than 50,000 in mainland China.

“China’s national imperative continues to be the continuing dominance and governance of the Chinese Communist Party,” the British report said. “China sees almost all of its global activity in the context of its struggle with the U.S. The U.K. is also of interest given its membership of international bodies of significance to China and the perception of the U.K. as an opinion-former — which plays into China’s strategy to reshape international systems in its favor.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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