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Sept. 15, 2022
Notes from the Pentagon

Xi arrives in Central Asia, plans talks with Putin

By Bill Gertz
Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Kazakhstan on Wednesday for his first known post-pandemic foray beyond China‘s borders and later plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan.

The Russian leader is expected to seek diplomatic backing for his troubled war in Ukraine, while Mr. Xi hopes to bolster ties with Moscow as part of his strategy to gain greater global power.

Mr. Xi arrived in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan and was greeted by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, state media of both nations reported.

The Chinese leader vowed to “resolutely support” Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to “oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country,” according to a statement posted on the Kazakh presidential website.

The Chinese pledge was in marked contrast to China’s failure to back Ukraine’s sovereignty and Beijing’s neutral stance toward Russia since it invaded Ukraine.

After the state visit, Mr. Xi is set to travel to Uzbekistan where the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization will hold a regional summit.

In what will be a highly scrutinized meeting, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin will talk on the sidelines of the summit to bolster the so-called “no limits” agreement reached between the two leaders in Beijing last February, just weeks before Russian troops crossed into Ukraine.

The meeting is expected to provide Mr. Putin with valuable support from one of the few world leaders backing Russia’s military aggression and its clash with the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Mr. Xi will seek to further influence the Russian leader to support the Chinese leader’s strategy of achieving global hegemony.

The Xi-Putin summit also will occur weeks before a major party congress of the Chinese Communist Party, one that is expected to endorse a five-year extension of Mr. Xi’s power as general secretary of the party and chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission — the ultimate power organ.

The meeting in Samarkand will be the two leaders’ first face-to-face meeting since the invasion. It will take place as Russian forces in Ukraine are taking heavy losses and recently lost territory following a Ukrainian military counteroffensive in the country’s east.

The two-day summit in Uzbekistan will highlight the political, economic and security alliance that many analysts have said is directed at limiting U.S. influence in the region. The SCO includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev also are expected to take part in the summit.

A report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission called the SCO a “testbed for Chinese power projection.”

Military exercises carried out under SCO auspices “offer a unique opportunity for the Chinese armed forces to practice air-ground combat operations in foreign countries, undertaking a range of operations including long-distance mobilization, counterterrorism missions, stability maintenance operations and conventional warfare,” the report from 2020 states. Chinese military operations in Central Asia could present operational challenges for the U.S. military, the report said.

The People’s Liberation Army in the past actively interfered with U.S. operations in Nepal in response to an earthquake and likely contributed to Nepalese loss of lives from the disaster, the report said.

“Beijing is already using its diplomatic relationships to facilitate an active military presence in Central Asia, such as through its military outpost in Tajikistan and counterterrorism patrols in the China-Tajikistan-Afghanistan border area,” the report said, adding that the efforts may be expanded to other parts of the world in the future.

Pentagon board meets on space-based hypersonic threat
The Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board recently held a classified session to discuss the development of an orbiting hypersonic strike weapon by both China and Russia. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took part in the two-day session of the board last week.

According to a readout of the meeting, board Chairwoman Janine Davidson led “classified deliberations on how China and Russia’s potential development of fractional orbital bombardment systems, and space-to-ground weapons could impact U.S. deterrence and strategic stability.”

It was the first time that the Pentagon revealed Russia is building a FOBS system, for which the U.S. military currently has no defenses. The Soviet Union first built an orbiting strike system in the 1960s.

“The board considered U.S. response options to the potential development of such capabilities by any adversary, and participated in a classified Pacific-theater tabletop exercise,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The board’s findings will be presented to Mr. Austin at a future meeting.

The board is an advisory group of experts that includes policy, military and business leaders.

Current members served in past Democratic and Republican administrations, including former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Details of China’s FOBS were disclosed by military officials earlier this year.

Strategic Command head Adm. Charles Richard disclosed to Congress in May that China in July 2021 tested its FOBS with a hypersonic missile that orbited the earth before striking a land target.

Adm. Richard said the missile “has an unlimited range, can attack from any azimuth, and comes down in a hypersonic glide vehicle with great performance. … No nation in history has ever demonstrated that capability.”

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, which is in charge of defending against enemy missiles, acknowledged in earlier congressional testimony that the Chinese test of the orbiting hypersonic missile is a concern.

The space-based weapon “demonstrated the weapon’s ability to survive reentry and perform high-speed and maneuvering glide after orbiting around the globe,” Gen. VanHerck said.

Apple engineer pleads to stealing robot car secrets
A former Apple engineer pleaded guilty recently to stealing computer files with trade secrets on the company’s secretive autonomous car as part of a scheme to supply them to a Chinese competitor.

Xiaolang Zhang, made the plea in federal court in San Jose, California, on Aug. 22. He had been arrested in 2018.

The plea agreement was sealed by the court and it is not known if Apple’s autonomous car secrets were passed to the Chinese rival, identified as Xiaopeng Motors Technology Co. Ltd., a Guangzhou carmaker known as XPeng.

Court documents in the case revealed that Zhang went to work for Apple in 2015 in the autonomous vehicles project and designed and tested circuit boards used to analyze sensor data. In 2018 he traveled to China and later told Apple he planned to work for Xmotors, a Chinese start-up focused on electric and autonomous vehicle technology.

Apple security officials discovered he had downloaded trade secrets and removed two circuit boards and a Linux server prior to his resignation.

Zhang also told Apple officials he had discussed working for the Chinese company while still employed at Apple.

The FBI was called in and Zhang was indicted for stealing a 25-page document of schematics on a circuit board for Apple’s autonomous vehicle. He was arrested in July 2018 at San Jose airport as he was preparing to leave for China.

Daniel Olmos, a lawyer for Zhang, declined to comment and said the plea agreement would be sealed “for the foreseeable future.” Prosecutors in the case also declined to comment.

A report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said the Zhang case was one example of Chinese government efforts to steal intellectual property theft or carry out cyber espionage against U.S. companies “in high-value [internet of things] and IoT-enabling sectors.” The report said Zhang planned to transfer Apple’s car secrets to Xiaopeng Motors.

The case provided a rare look at Apple’s effort to build a self-driving car. Court papers said the division building the car had 2,700 core employees and that all information about the vehicle was tightly controlled.

Bloomberg News reported last year that Apple is pursuing two types of self-driving vehicles. One model would have limited self-driving capabilities focused on steering and acceleration. A second car would be fully self-driving without human intervention.

The company hopes to complete its autonomous car by 2025.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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