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Sept. 17, 2015
Notes from the Pentagon

Summit to seek closer China military ties
Despite tensions over Chinese military cyberattacks and destabilizing island-building in the South China Sea, the Obama administration is hoping to use the visit next week by Chinese President Xi Jinping to expand military exchanges.

Pentagon officials were hoping to conclude an agreement in time for the summit that would outline so-called “rules of the road” for U.S.-China military aircraft encounters.

As of this week, however, talks between Pentagon and Chinese military officials on minimizing dangers during aerial encounters remained bogged down by Beijing’s demands that the U.S. military halt all surveillance flights near Chinese coasts. The Pentagon so far has refused to agree to the limits, according to U.S. officials familiar with the summit planning.

A Chinese jet flew dangerously close to a U.S. P-8 surveillance jet in August 2014 over the South China Sea. The incident triggered the effort to reduce the dangers of aerial intercepts. A U.S.-China agreement on sea encounters has been reached, but an aerial accord remains elusive.

The Obama administration wants expanded military exchanges with China to be a key “deliverable” for the Xi visit, despite the concerns over China’s cyberhacking and island-building. The summit, like regular talks known as the strategic and economic dialogue, is expected to be strong on atmospherics but short on substance.

The Obama administration has prepared sanctions against China for its damaging hacking operation against the Office of Personnel Management networks that compromised sensitive personnel information on some 22 million federal workers. The sanctions will be announced after Mr. Xi’s visit.

The Chinese leader’s visit begins September 25 and includes a formal White House state dinner, an event traditionally reserved for leaders of U.S. allies and friends. A White House statement said Mr. Xi’s visit will “present an opportunity to expand U.S.-China cooperation on a range of global, regional, and bilateral issues of mutual interest.” The areas were not specified.

The statement also said the two leaders would “address areas of disagreement constructively,” a hint at the coming sanctions over the OPM hack.

Summit preparations have been underway for weeks, with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, making visits to Beijing.

A Chinese delegation visited Washington last week and was led by Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the Communist Party Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. Mr. Meng was told about U.S. plans for the impending sanctions.

The administration’s plan for expanded U.S.-China military ties is a political slap at two key members of Congress who earlier this year called for scaling back or suspending the military exchanges over concerns they are boosting Chinese war-fighting capabilities and rewarding Beijing’s threatening behavior.

Rep. Randy J. Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on sea power, has said the military exchanges should be scaled back because they are not improving Chinese behavior.

“There is no indication that more engagement has helped to shape Beijing’s action in a positive direction consistent with U.S. objectives,” Mr. Forbes wrote to the Pentagon in December.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain in February told the Pentagon U.S. aircraft carriers should not be allowed to make port visits to China.

“Sending such a platform to China would be seen as an international display of respect to China and its navy, despite Beijing’s recent record of aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas,” the Arizona Republican wrote to Pentagon leaders, noting “China’s continued use of coercion to pursue its territorial claims.”

The plan to expand military ties appears to be the latest example of an administration policy of ignoring Congress’ security concerns about China.

Thornberry on Islamic State ideology
The war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is not going well, and one reason is the lack of an effective counterideology program, according to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry.

The Texas Republican said in an interview last week that the Obama administration is failing both militarily and ideologically to counter the terrorist group that now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria and is expanding to nearby regions, including Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya.

The chairman said the restricted bombing campaign and the Obama administration’s efforts to bolster Iraqi Security Forces have done nothing to diminish the ideological appeal of the group. The ultraviolent jihadi ideology of Islamic State is the prime motivator for a movement to create an Islamic caliphate. The group has conducted highly publicized atrocities, including videotaped beheadings, mass executions of prisoners and sexual enslavement.

“Their ideas are growing,” Mr. Thornberry said.

The expansion of Islamic State in Afghanistan among al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists is not surprising. “But the point is the ideology of ISIS is ascendant,” he said, using an acronym for the group. “It is attractive to people. And so whatever is happening on the ground back in Syria, we are not effectively battling the ideology.”

Despite an announced U.S. strategy that includes counterideological efforts, the administration has done little to counteract Islamic State recruitment and propaganda efforts.

Militarily, President Obama has placed constraints on military leaders in the battle against Islamic State, also known as ISIL, Mr. Thornberry said.

“It raises questions about whether the United States is serous about degrading ISIS — whether its numbers of people, or the restrictions [that say] you can’t go out of the base with the Iraqi units you’re trying to train, plus the airstrike restrictions — all of the boxes that have to be checked before you can drop something. I think all of that contributes not only to the idea that we’re not serious about it, but it’s contributed to the fact that they’re really not degraded much at all,” Mr. Thornberry said.

Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of the U.S. Central Command, came under fire Wednesday from both Republicans and Democrats who said the anti-Islamic State campaign is foundering.

Gen. Austin defended the strategy during a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, stating “despite some slow movement at the tactical level, we continue to make progress across the battle space in support of the broader U.S. government strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain noted Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two weeks ago described the military campaign in Iraq as a stalemate. “This is an abject failure,” he said.

China bolstering navy, cyberforces
After announcing a planned cut of some 300,000 troops, China’s military is beefing up its naval and cyberwarfare forces, according to veteran China analyst Willy Lam.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the troop cut during the September 3 World War II commemoration as a propaganda measure designed to reduce regional fears of growing Chinese hegemony.

Mr. Lam, writing in the newsletter, said Beijing defense sources disclosed plans to beef up naval forces by 50,000 troops by the end of the decade. The current force level is around 255,000, he said.

People’s Liberation Army troop reductions will be taken from auxiliary forces, such as medical, engineering and entertainment units, he said.

China’s military strategy has placed a strong emphasis on expanding naval power with ships, submarines and missiles.

China is expanding global naval deployments. Five Chinese naval vessels made an unprecedented deployment to the Bering Strait earlier this month timed to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Alaska. The warships came within 12 miles of the Alaska coast.

The president made no mention of the Chinese naval deployment. Instead, he warned of the dangers of melting glaciers, which he attributed to global warming.

Another key Chinese strategic weapon being beefed up with additional funds and personnel is the secretive cyberwarfare unit within the military.

“President Xi, who chairs the [Chinese Communist Party’s] Central Leading Group on Cyberspace Affairs, has taken a personal interest in enhancing China’s ability to conduct cyberwarfare against countries and regions including the United States and Taiwan,” Mr. Lam stated.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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