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Nov. 7, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S.: China claim to sea 'preposterous'
China’s claim to own the South China Sea are “preposterous” and illegal, according to a State Department report made public this week.

Beijing’s “maritime claims in the South China Sea, exemplified by the preposterous ‘Nine-Dash Line,’ are unfounded, unlawful and unreasonable,” states the report on U.S. policy supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

“These claims, which are without legal, historic or geographic merit, impose real costs on other countries,” the report added. “Through repeated provocative actions to assert the Nine-Dash Line, Beijing is inhibiting ASEAN members from accessing over $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves, while contributing to instability and the risk of conflict.”

The report was released Sunday in the run-up to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bangkok this week.

White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien accused China during the summit of bullying neighbors in the South China Sea.

“Beijing has used intimidation to try and stop ASEAN nations from exploiting their offshore resources,” he said on Monday. “Big countries should not bully other countries.”

China has asserted that its Nine-Dash Line, outlining the scope of its claims, covers some 90% of the South China Sea and therefore the waters are China’s sovereign maritime territory.

In 2016, however, the Netherlands-based international Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled the Nine-Dash Line was illegal. The proposed border violates local states’ claims to exclusive economic zones outlined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China ignored the ruling and continues to insist on owning the strategic waterway.

To press back, the U.S. Navy has been stepping up frequent warship passages through the sea in a bid to assert freedom of navigation rights through the waterway. The warship passages have been met in most cases by shadowing from Chinese naval vessels that unsuccessfully order the warships to leave the area.

According to the State Department report, naval passages in the past two years for the first time included warships from several regional states.

“In May 2019, we participated in the first joint sail by U.S., Indian, Japanese, and Philippines navies through the South China Sea,” the report said.

The State Department has provided more than $1.1 billion in security assistance to Asian nations for training and equipment. The program is aimed at helping regional states detect threats, share information and respond to crises. The Pentagon also has provided about $250 million to enhance maritime security in the region, strengthening information-sharing, military interoperability and multinational maritime cooperation.

Among the more urgent regional threats, according to the report, are cyberattacks from China, Russia, North Korea and nonstate actors.

“The United States is increasing support to our Indo-Pacific partners to defend their networks and counter malicious cyber activities that seek to steal money, intellectual property, and other sensitive information,” the report said.

U.S. cybersecurity efforts are coordinated with the governments of Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea and seek to develop joint cyberstrategies and policies and increase defenses against cyberattacks. In Singapore, the United States is working on a cybersecurity initiative for ASEAN that includes regional confidence-building measures.

The State Department report made no mention of China’s buildup of small islands in the sea, deploying anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on some of them. China, according to the Pentagon, has reclaimed some 3,200 acres of islands and, contrary to a pledge made by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the islands, began missile deployments in the spring of 2018.

The State Department report concluded with a strong statement of support for American regional engagement aimed at reassuring regional states about the U.S. commitment to preventing Chinese territorial encroachment.

“We are committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty and able to pursue economic growth consistent with international law and principles of fair competition,” the report said.

The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to ban the use of telecommunications equipment produced by China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE in the U.S. over concerns from electronic spying by Beijing.

Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced Oct. 28 that new rules will be put into place later this month aimed at safeguarding U.S. communications networks.

The two-part plan calls for barring communications companies from using FCC money provided under a program called the Universal Service Fund to purchase equipment or services that pose “a national security threat.” That includes Huawei and ZTE, Mr. Pai stated.

The new order also creates a system that could designate other suppliers that pose national security threats, should the Chinese seek to circumvent the ban by using subsidiaries or by renaming their companies.

The second part of the proposal calls for regional telecommunications carriers to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment from their networks as the U.S. and other nations move to 5G national wireless networks. The proposal will also seek to determine the scale of Chinese equipment currently being used in those networks.

“When it comes to 5G and America’s security, we can’t afford to take a risk and hope for the best,” Mr. Pai said. “We need to make sure our networks won’t harm our national security, threaten our economic security, or undermine our values.”

Mr. Pai said the Chinese government “has shown repeatedly that it is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do just that.”

Additionally, Chinese regulations require all companies to secretly comply with requests from intelligence services to access data and equipment.

“As the United States upgrades its networks to the next generation of wireless technologies — 5G — we cannot ignore the risk that the Chinese government will seek to exploit network vulnerabilities in order to engage in espionage, insert malware and viruses, and otherwise compromise our critical communications networks,” Mr. Pai said.

The goal of the new rules is to prevent the use of funds from the $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund from undermining American security through “untrusted” vendors such as Huawei and ZTE.

Mr. Pai said the action followed a 2017 letter from 18 members of Congress warning about the threat posed by the use of Huawei equipment.

“Both the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have long been concerned about Chinese espionage in general, and Huawei’s role in that espionage in particular,” the lawmakers stated.

An FCC vote on the new rules is set for Nov. 19.

A joint statement by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement leaders warned this week that China, Russia, Iran and others will seek to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

“Our adversaries want to undermine our democratic institutions, influence public sentiment and affect government policies,” the leaders said in a statement Tuesday. “Russia, China, Iran, and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions.”

A variety of methods is expected, including the use of social media, disinformation operations and launching “disruptive or destructive cyberattacks on state and local infrastructure.”

While there is no evidence of a compromise or disruption related to election voting machines and other infrastructure, “we continue to vigilantly monitor any threats to U.S. elections,” the statement said.

“The U.S. government will defend our democracy and maintain transparency with the American public about our efforts,” the statement said. “An informed public is a resilient public.”

Suspicious activity related to election interference should be reported to local officials, the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security.

The letter was signed by Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Cyber Command Commander and NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, and Christopher Krebs, director of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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