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Sept. 24, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

People's Liberation Army boosting Chinese expansion
China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, has become a key player in Chinese expansionism around the globe, according to a senior State Department official.

Miles Yu, China policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the Chinese military has moved beyond its traditional role of keeping the Communist Party in power. The military now is facilitating Beijing’s more assertive role globally.

Mr. Yu, a Naval Academy professor currently on loan to the State Department, said the dominant view of the PLA has been that its main job is internal security, such as the use of PLA forces to brutally put down mass pro-democracy protests in 1989. The military also is viewed as a regional threat to Taiwan and other states near China.

“While that part is still true, the PLA’s role has reached the globe in a much more sophisticated, substantial way,” Mr. Yu said during an online webinar hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

“The PLA is not just a collective name for the party armed forces,” he said. “It’s also a global conglomerate for intelligence, for enterprise and for high-tech expansion, and it plays a very important role in China’s dual-use, civil-military fusion.”

For example, the PLA is playing a key role in China’s acquisition of port facilities around the world in what analysts have termed a “string of pearls” strategy to develop a network of bases that could be used for both commercial and military purposes. China’s state-run shipping company owns the Piraeus port near Athens, one of Europe’s largest, and also Belgium’s Zeebrugge port, along with interests in at least 10 others.

The PLA conducts aggressive cyberespionage operations and has been accused of carrying out major hacking operations against American networks.

The PLA also can play a significant role in controlling communications networks, through companies like Huawei Technologies, Mr. Yu said.

“Huawei’s CEO was a former PLA intel officer,” Mr. Yu said, an indication that the military has broad influence through Huawei and its vast network of telecommunications infrastructure around the world.

Militarily, the PLA is predominantly a land army with a growing naval capability that has yet to match that of the United States, he said.

“But [the PLA is] also technologically a global threat,” Mr. Yu said. “It is in sync with Chinese global outreach, both covert and overt.”

The PLA wants to control strategic chokepoints, such as its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. From that base, China could control shipping through the Red Sea. The Djibouti base is expected to be the first of many Chinese military bases overseas, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the PLA.

The PLA recently has sent its warships into the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, an area where it has not been known to operate in the past. Chinese President Xi Jinping also has invested a lot of resources into building up four key areas of the PLA: space warfare, cyberwarfare, and deep sea and Arctic capabilities, Mr. Yu said.

China’s Communist Party “desires the PLA to become a practical instrument of its statecraft, with an active role in advancing the PRC’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the PRC’s increasingly global interests and its aims to revise aspects of the international order,” the Pentagon report said.

The Chinese air force released a recruiting video recently showing a trio of H-6 bombers conducting a simulated attack on the U.S. military base on Guam, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific. The two-minute, 19-second video was originally posted on Weibo, a Chinese government-controlled social media platform.

But later the video was uploaded to YouTube — a sign that Chinese propagandists intended the threatening video featuring a surprise missile attack was intended for more than domestic military recruiting for the People’s Liberation Army. YouTube is blocked in China by state censors. An analysis of the YouTube version of the video shows it contains information not in the original Chinese version.

For example, the person who posted the video, Lao Wang, stated in Chinese that the video was obtained from Weibo and shows an attack on Guam. The video states that what is shown is a simulation of an attack on an American military base — without specific mention of Guam. Guam is, however, mentioned in the text below the video.

The attack begins by showing a pilot pressing a red button and launching a missile toward a peninsula or the tip of an island that does not appear to match any geographic features of Guam from Google Earth imagery. The shape of the beach also does not appear to be similar to any part of Guam.

Shortly afterward, however, two images depict what looks like a weapons-tracking computer screen with telemetry simulating onboard tracking of the missile to its target.

Analysis of this portion of the video clearly finds a match with the runways and aprons at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, leaving no doubt that the Chinese were practicing an attack on the major U.S. military hub in the Pacific.

About five seconds later, another peninsula or island appears and the video shows a large explosion and fireball that is not Guam. Four seconds after that, a small mushroom cloud similar to that produced by a large conventional explosion — not a nuclear blast — appears on a target that also does not resemble Guam’s geography.

The Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily revealed that several scenes from the PLA video were lifted from U.S. movies, prompting derision from some online Chinese critics for using footage from the enemy. One netizen questioned whether the U.S. scenes had to be used because corrupt Chinese officials had embezzled the Communist Party’s propaganda budget.

The PLA video ends with the three H-6 bombers flying home to a base in a formation accompanied by escort fighters. The final scene shows a group of pilots smiling and talking as they walk away from the plane as if to say, “Just another happy day at work for the PLA air force.”

The Pacific Air Forces, in a tweet in response to the PLA video, called it “yet another example of [the Chinese military’s] use of propaganda in an attempt to coerce and intimidate the region.” Maintaining the safety of American and allied personnel in the region is “of utmost importance,” the statement added.

Another video posted Monday shows PLA troops in combat with martial music playing and ends with a salvo of short-range ballistic missiles being fired.

The indictment of a New York City police officer and Army reservist accused of working as a Chinese agent provides new details of the intelligence operations of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The department is a special intelligence-gathering and influence unit seen as key to the party’s global efforts to stifle opponents and promote Chinese policies.

Baimadajie Angwang, 33, was charged with acting as an illegal Chinese agent since at least 2014, along with charges of wire fraud and making false statements on a security questionnaire. He held a secret-level security clearance.

Prosecutors said he was spying for Beijing against Tibetans and Tibetan Americans in Queens, a major target of the Chinese government. Tibet was taken over by Chinese military forces in 1950.

According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Angwang was recruited by a Chinese Consulate official in New York who was working for the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture, identified as a division of the UFWD. The case is one of the first federal prosecutions to directly link the UFWD to Chinese intelligence operations.

Other Chinese intelligence and security services targeted by the FBI in a major crackdown on Chinese espionage and technology theft include the civilian Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Public Security and the PLA’s Second Department, the military spy agency.

The UFWD is more political than its intelligence agency cousins and is rooted in CCP influence operations. The department has been described as a Leninist control mechanism adapted from the Soviet Union, with the mandate to “mobilize Party friends and strike at Party enemies.”

“State and local officials should be aware that they are not immune to the threat of Chinese espionage,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.

Mr. Angwang told his Chinese handler that he was seeking promotion within the New York Police Department to bring “glory to China.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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