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July 30, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

'Indications and warnings' from China
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he is confident the upcoming presidential election Authorities in Beijing are taking steps that are setting off alarm bells inside the U.S. military and intelligence communities.

What intelligence agencies call “indications and warnings” — signs of potential hostile military or other actions against the United States — are being detected from inside China. Analysts suggest these movements reveal Beijing may be preparing for some type of military or covert action.

One indicator was Twitter video showing authorities putting up signs telling citizens how to take cover in a bomb shelter.

One poster read: “How to quickly enter the wartime civil air defense facility after you hear the alarm.”

Civil defense has been a major focus of Chinese Communist Party leaders since the 1960s, when Beijing feared attack from the Soviet Union.

Also, China’s “Great Underground Wall” — 3,000 miles of tunnels connecting nuclear missiles, warheads and production plants — highlights the CCP’s concern with underground facilities.

Another source in Asia reported that Taiwanese ham radio operators were picking up indicators that China may be preparing to take some type of action against Taiwan’s outer islands, which are closer to the mainland than the main Taiwan island, which sits around 100 miles off the southern coast.

A third indicator comes from a businessman with contacts inside China who says locals there are reporting unusual movements of equipment and shifts in production at some factories away from producing civilian products.

There are also rumors of a major political power struggle in Beijing pitting Chinese President Xi Jinping against political elements behind former Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong — an ally of former leader Jiang Zemin and part of the Shanghai political faction.

“The internal messaging has suddenly turned much more bellicose, and crackdowns internally have ratcheted up, significantly,” said the businessman, speaking on background. “It is not clear if their concern is external or internal, but there has been a shift in Chinese-focused rhetoric, and military readiness is suddenly heightened.”

The last time similar indicators were seen was around 2012 when senior party leader Bo Xilai set himself up as a new sort of populist leader in southern China until he was ousted by Mr. Xi.

Four senior Trump administration officials in recent weeks issued major foreign policy addresses outlining the threats posed by communist China and the Trump administration’s response to it.

One official who was not part of the four-part critique and counterproposal was Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who instead recently announced he is ready to travel to China for meetings with military leaders there.

The conciliatory approach appears part of the past engagement policies that placed a high value on military exchanges with Beijing, but the effort to “build trust” with the People’s Liberation Army has largely failed to produce closer ties or cooperation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed such engagements in his own address on China, questioning whether there were any benefits to the U.S. from 50 years of engagement with China. “The old paradigm of blind engagement with China has failed,” he said.

White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien kicked off the series of speeches last month, identifying America’s dealings with China as the greatest failure of U.S. foreign policy since the 1930s.

FBI Director Christopher Wray then outlined the Chinese intelligence and technology theft danger, which he called the greatest long-term threat to American economic and national security.

Attorney General William Barr then lambasted the Chinese Communist Party for exploiting American openness. “The CCP has launched an orchestrated campaign, across all of its many tentacles in Chinese government and society, to exploit the openness of our institutions in order to destroy them,” he said.

By contrast, Mr. Esper, in a July 21 speech, sounded more like a defense secretary in the Obama administration while laying out his views on China.

Instead of focusing on Beijing’s alarming buildup of conventional and nuclear forces aimed at preparing for a future conflict with the United States, Mr. Esper instead offered a relatively dry outline of the U.S. military’s plan to bolster regional readiness and increase alliance ties.

The secretary did highlight what he called China’s “systematic rule-breaking, coercion and other malign activities” in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and its imposition of a draconian new security law in Hong Kong.

But Mr. Esper also lauded his “multiple” conversations with Chinese military leaders and announced that he plans to travel to China later this year “to enhance cooperation on areas of common interest, establish the systems necessary for crisis communications, and reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system in which we all belong.”

The problem is that China has shown no willingness to enhance mutual cooperation or establish systems of military communications.

A senior administration official said the Pentagon leader was left out of the four-speech strategy because of a lack of solid China hands in key policy positions after the departure in December of Assistant Defense Secretary Randall Schriver. Instead, Pentagon policy bureaucrats known to favor softer policies on China remain in key positions.

A senior State Department official said Mr. Esper’s moderate stance on China is not a problem and appears more of a “good cop-bad cop” tactic.

Jonathan Hoffman, Mr. Esper’s chief spokesman, denied that Mr. Esper is soft on China and insisted that the Pentagon has been focused on the China threat for years by implementing plans for long-term competition.

“The secretary has focused on this topic in his public and private remarks for more than a year. Notably, he spoke out at the 2019 ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting plus to our partner nations and his Chinese counterpart, and again to the International Institute for Strategic Studies last week to a global audience,” he said.

More messaging along those lines is expected in the coming weeks.

“At the same time, however, if we are looking for a diplomatic — not military — solution to Chinese misadventure and malign influence, then other elements of the U.S. government should be communicating as well, which we have seen increasingly over the last year from all corners of the administration,” Mr. Hoffman said.

Militarily, American forces “will continue to exhibit action and capacity in our ability to confront China if needed,” he added, noting stepped-up freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

The highest-profile military show of force in the region was the recent dual aircraft carrier operations in the South China Sea — a direct challenge to China’s expansive sovereignty claims. The Pentagon has also built up advanced capabilities and adopted strategies and plans to protect the American people and promote shared interests in the Indo-Pacific, the spokesman said.

“As the secretary said, ‘While we hope the CCP will change its ways, we must be prepared for the alternative,’” Mr. Hoffman said.

Richard Haass, president of the establishment Council on Foreign Relations, recently challenged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech calling 50 years of American engagement with China a failure.

Writing in The Washington Post, Mr. Haass described Mr. Pompeo’s “blistering” speech in California last week as undiplomatic and inaccurate.

Mr. Haass praised the engagement policy launched by President Nixon and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, saying it saw China as a “counterweight” to the Soviet Union and aimed at shaping Beijing’s foreign policies and not reforming its communist system.

Mr. Haass’ piece echoed many of China’s own talking points, arguing that Beijing is peaceful, has not fought a war in over 30 years and has not invaded Taiwan yet.

“Theodore Roosevelt advised the United States to speak softly and carry a big stick,” Mr. Haass wrote. “This president and his chief diplomat are perilously close to getting it backward.”

Evidence of how closely Mr. Haass’ views fit with those of China’s propagandists was on display on Twitter. A tweet by Mr. Haass promoting his op-ed was retweeted by none other than chief Foreign Ministry propaganda official Hua Chunying.

A senior Trump administration official tells Inside the Ring that Mr. Haass’ views are stuck in the “China fantasy” policy of the 1970s that sought to downplay or ignore threats posed by Beijing.

The Council on Foreign Relations president “mistook Nixon and Kissinger’s incidental expediency for permanent strategy, confusing means with goals,” the official said.

“In fact, the primary impetus for Nixon and Kissinger to go to China was to seek Chinese help in getting the U.S. out of the Vietnam War to boost Nixon’s 1972 reelection.”

The official noted that it was the Chinese communists — not the Americans — who wanted a joint geopolitical counterweight to the Soviet Union.

“The Chinese played the U.S. card much more adroitly than the other way around,” the official said. “The post-Watergate spin on Nixon and Kissinger’s strategic brilliance in the 1970s reflects a poverty of epistemological humility.”

Asked about the official’s comments, Mr. Haass said his op-ed “speaks for itself.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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