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Oct. 29, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

China building second Sri Lanka port

By Bill Gertz
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — China is building a second seaport on this strategic Indian Ocean island as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing's global expansion strategy.

The first Chinese-built seaport on the southern end of the island is called Hambantota and has been operational for three years under a 99-year lease to a Chinese company. The new port is located in the capital of Colombo and is part of an estimated $8.3 billion invested so far by China since 2013.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited this week for meetings with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other leaders. He urged Sri Lanka to maintain democratic governance in the face of growing Chinese influence.

At a press conference, Mr. Pompeo said the island nation should resist China’s authoritarianism and attempts to control the country. Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, can become a “beacon” for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, he said.

“But that is quite a contrast to what China seeks,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator. The United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner.”

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sidestepped a question about whether the country will side with the United States or China. Sri Lanka is “a neutral, nonaligned country,” he said.

Sri Lanka is a key hub for the Belt and Road Initiative, a $13 trillion infrastructure development plan that so far has invested mainly in developing countries. American officials have accused Beijing of “debt-trap diplomacy” — offering recipients high-interest loans and then forcing early repayment to gain control of infrastructure projects such as ports and railroads.

Critics say the initiative is a stalking horse for Chinese global expansionism and the spreading of China’s communist system.

Sri Lanka is strategically located southeast of the Indian subcontinent, and U.S. officials are concerned that China could control shipping through the ocean from its bases in Sri Lanka as well as from the Chinese-financed Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Although currently a commercial system, the Chinese global port network potentially provides China with an international basing network for warships and other military forces.

The Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military described the Chinese commercial ports as part of overseas basing and access for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China “is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances,” the report said.

Currently, the sole overseas PLA base is in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. But Sri Lanka is among 11 locations around the world slated for potential military logistics bases to support PLA naval, air and ground forces.

“A global PLA military logistics network could interfere with U.S. military operations and provide flexibility to support offensive operations against the United States,” the Pentagon survey said.

A report by the Center for Global Development, a think tank, warned that the Hambantota port project was an example of how Beijing seeks to make developing nations financially dependent.

“Increasing debt and China’s role in managing bilateral debt problems [have] already exacerbated internal and bilateral tensions in some BRI countries, such as Sri Lanka, where citizens have regularly clashed with police over a new industrial zone surrounding Hambantota port,” the report said.

Chinese dredging for the second Sri Lankan port, called Port City, has been underway for months and ultimately will reclaim 664 acres of land along the coast. The new port is being built jointly by the Sri Lankan government and the China Harbor Engineering Co.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the brother of the president, did not meet with Mr. Pompeo during his visit. In September, the prime minister called for speeding up development of the second Chinese port.

“As the new landmark of Sri Lanka, Port City Colombo will drive the development of the country and leave a precious legacy to our future generations,” the prime minister said.

The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka issued a statement denouncing the United States for what it called a “Cold War mentality and hegemonistic mindset.”

“We are firmly opposed to the United States taking the opportunity of [Mr. Pompeo’s] visit to interfere in China-Sri Lanka relations and to coerce and bully Sri Lanka,” the statement said.

Two senior Pentagon officials said this week that weapons developers are moving rapidly to prepare for deployment of hypersonic weapons.

“Our goals are pretty straightforward: We want to deliver high-speed weapons at scale — and by ‘at scale,’ we mean large numbers — into the hands of our war fighters,” said Mark Lewis, director of defense research and engineering for modernization. “We also want to develop defenses against weapons that some of our peer competitors are in the process of developing or deploying as well.”

China recently announced the deployment of its DF-17 hypersonic missile. Russia also is developing and testing hypersonic missiles.

Hypersonics are missiles and weapons that travel at speeds above Mach 5, or about 4,000 miles per hour. They also have the ability to maneuver, making them ideal weapons for frustrating existing missile defense systems.

The Defense Department’s fiscal 2021 budget request for all hypersonic research was $3.2 billion, including $206 million for hypersonic defenses. Mr. Lewis said the Pentagon regards hypersonics as an enabling technology.

“It’s not just one thing. It’s a range of systems. It’s everything from cruise missiles to longer-range weapons to basically high-speed airplanes, and maybe even high-speed spacecraft,” he said.

Current designs include the Navy’s common hypersonic glide vehicle, a conventional missile launched from submarines; the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon; and the Air Force AGM-183 air-launched rapid response weapon. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also working on a tactical boost glide weapon and a Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept.

One challenge for developers is that hypersonic weaponry is difficult to propel through the atmosphere, where the speeds create friction and high temperatures. Hypersonic weapons also require unique advanced propulsion systems and heat-resistant materials. Special aerodynamics also are required.

“How do you shape a vehicle that operates most efficiently at those sorts of speeds?” Mr. Lewis said. “And then the ability to control the vehicle: How do you make sure it points in the direction you want it to point in? How do you maneuver? How do you pitch? How do you yaw? How do you control it? How do you build sensors that can operate in those sorts of environments?”

The Pentagon has formed a panel of experts to answer those questions.

Mr. Lewis said Chinese hypersonic arms developers copied some U.S. designs and duplicated other American work obtained from research papers. “In some cases, they’ve just stolen things hook, line and sinker,” he noted.

In response, the Pentagon is taking a page from the Chinese and copying some of Beijing’s hypersonic weapons.

“In this case, it’s something that they’ve done, and we said, ‘Yeah, we can do that, and in fact, we can do it better,’” Mr. Lewis said.

Gillian Bussey director of the Joint Hypersonics Transition Office, said research on hypersonics is being limited to U.S. citizens and allies, including Australia, Britain and Canada, to avoid foreign spying. Texas A&M University is one center for the research and was picked because of its tight security.

“They are proactive in looking for counterintelligence threats to essentially make sure that we’re not training Chinese scientists who are going to go help their programs, for example,” Ms. Bussey said.

“That’s very much on the top of our minds, and we’re certainly looking for ways to ensure that these efforts stay out of the hands of folks who are going to use it against us in a future conflict.”

The Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military outlines Beijing’s significant foreign influence operations and the People’s Liberation Army’s role in them.

According to the report, influence operations are designed to achieve favorable outcomes to support strategic objectives, targeting cultural institutions, media organizations, and business, academia and policy sectors of society.

The Chinese Communist Party “seeks to condition domestic, foreign and multilateral political establishments and public opinion to accept Beijing’s narratives,” said the report, adding that Chinese leaders see open societies like the United States as more susceptible to influence operations than authoritarian governments.

Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant defense secretary for China, said recently that the PLA, as an armed force with the main mission of supporting the CCP, undertakes vigorous propaganda and influence operations.

“And one of the elements of that is the intimate and really indistinguishable connection between the PLA — what they do, how they operate, how they think — and what the party propaganda apparatus does, particularly for the information environment,” Mr. Sbragia said. “It’s a very seamless apparatus that they have set up, controlled through the party and then executed through basically every organ of Chinese power that they have, the PLA being one of them.”

PLA information operations are tailored to support overall CCP objectives and are dispatched through military spokesmen, military propaganda outlets and military exchanges.

“It’s intimately tied to their Office of International Military Cooperation and how they socialize and develop messaging that goes out broadly,” Mr. Sbragia said.

“There’s also an element that’s connected in through the party propaganda and political oversight ministry departments that connect into broader Chinese strategic messaging,” he added. “There’s aspects of the Chinese military apparatus and its other cybercapabilities in its Strategic Support Forces that help facilitate those messages from very public to private messaging.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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