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Sept. 10, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

PLA military coercion increases
The People’s Liberation Army is stepping up provocations and military coercion in Asia as part of a strategy to increase its power and influence throughout the region, according to a National Defense University expert.

NDU China specialist Joel Wuthnow said the aggressive tactics, mainly using “gray zone” warfare below the level of armed clashes, have been employed near Taiwan, Japan and the South China Sea in recent months.

“U.S. forces in the region were not immune from aggressive Chinese tactics,” he said. “In February, U.S. Pacific Fleet reported that a P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft had been targeted with a high-powered laser from a Chinese destroyer west of Guam.”

It was the latest in a series of Chinese lasing incidents against U.S. aircraft, including strikes against U.S. military aircraft near China’s military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

Mr. Wuthnow told a hearing Wednesday of the congressional commission on China that Beijing has sought to use a combination of military diplomacy and provocative actions in the region. The coercive activities, however, overshadowed the diplomatic campaign.

The most significant recent military clash occurred along the disputed Line of Control separating India and China.

The initial trigger for renewed tensions was the April incursion of an estimated 5,000 Chinese troops into a border area claimed by India. Then on June 15, tensions bubbled over in the Galwan Valley, where hand-to-hand combat broke out between Chinese and Indian troops using stones and barbed-wire clubs. The battle led to the deaths of 20 Indians and an unknown number of Chinese troops.

It was the first major clash that produced casualties in the region since the 1962 border war between the two giant neighbors.

China’s military also has coercion in Hong Kong, where the PLA has built up troop strength, and in nearby Shenzhen in an apparent preparation for a military incursion against pro-democracy protesters. Chinese special operations forces also were deployed in Hong Kong in apparent strategic messaging that the forces could be used against protesters.

The PLA also used military pressure on Taiwan with bomber and jet fighter flights around the island. Japan has faced stepped-up operations by China’s navy around the disputed Senkaku Islands that both nations claim.

In the South China Sea, Chinese maritime militia, coast guard and naval forces conducted a number of provocative activities, including intimidation of drilling operations by Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, the locking of a fire control radar by a Chinese corvette against a Philippine navy anti-submarine vessel and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing trawler in April.

The U.S. military has been stepping up freedom of navigation ship passages and aerial flights in a bid to push back against the Chinese encroachment. The Pentagon said Chinese forces engaged in nine troubling incidents involving U.S. military forces in the South China Sea from March through May. The incidents were described as “unsafe and unprofessional” encounters with Chinese naval ships.

Mr. Wuthnow, senior research fellow at NDU’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, made the comments in testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission at a hearing on U.S.-Chinese relations.

A Chinese general in charge of the PLA’s biological warfare defenses created a video sensation last week by announcing on social media that China had begun producing a vaccine against the new coronavirus on Feb. 26 — just over a month after Beijing first disclosed the existence of the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maj. Gen. Chen Wei, who took over the Wuhan Institute of Virology in January to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, stated in a video broadcast by state-run CCTV and posted online last week that “our first vaccine for the novel coronavirus went into serial production on Feb. 26.” Gen. Chen said she recalled the date because it was her birthday.

A U.S. official said the video went viral in China and raised new questions about the still-unknown origins of the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such a vaccine could not have been produced so quickly after the initial virus outbreak without extensive human testing — unless the Chinese military was familiar with the virus prior to its official outbreak date of mid-December.

A senior Trump administration official told reporters that the rest of the world is catching up to what U.S. officials say is Chinese deception about the origin of the virus.

“We know, for example, the original hypothesis that the Chinese government put forward about the origins of this virus — that it emerged from a wet market — that hypothesis has been fundamentally excluded,” the official said.

“It’s been dismissed by peer-reviewed journals that showed that this epidemic was already raging in China long before the cluster of cases that appeared in that Wuhan market. And it was even dismissed by the head of the Chinese [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] this summer.”

China’s government has not cooperated with those trying to find the origin of the virus, the official said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently gave a medal to Gen. Chen and several other Chinese medical officials for what state media said was “their outstanding contribution during the outbreak.”

The Trump administration is planning steps to hold China accountable for the virus outbreak, which has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses.

The Trump administration’s landmark National Security Strategy, issued in 2017, for the first time in decades identified Communist China as a strategic competitor, a designation that has been the basis for the administration’s hard-line economic and security policies.

A senior Trump administration official, asked whether it was time to recognize China as a strategic adversary rather than just a competitor, said China is both.

“It is very much a competitive strategy,” the official said. “It puts competition at the forefront with our rivals, first and foremost the People’s Republic of China.”

The strategy relegated earlier engagement strategies with China “miles in the rearview mirror, even though there are still elements of engagement in the relationship,” the official noted.

That has translated into much more candid comments about China and the need for greater reciprocity in relations, instead of the one-sided relations in the past that provided greater benefits to Beijing.

The nature of the communist regime in China and its approach to the United States also have limited better relations. China seeks one-sided advantage for the Communist Party above the interests of the Chinese people, the official said.

However, the official said some official U.S. government documents have shifted to identifying China as an adversary.

“The Department of Energy, for example, had an executive order for the purposes of protecting our power grid, [which said] that it was necessary to recognize that there are adversarial dynamics here at play in the relationship,” the official said.

China is one of at least two nations that has conducted probing into computer control networks for U.S. power grids — an indication that China is planning to use its formidable cyberwarfare capabilities to shut down American power grids during any future conflict.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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