AS A MATTER of record, this Bystander should note that the US Department of Justice has dropped charges against five Chinese academics accused of concealing their ties to the People’s Liberation Army.
The five faced charges of visa fraud, as we wrote at the time.
The cases were dropped shortly before the trial of one of the five, Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with court papers), was about to start on July 26. The Justice Department said it had ‘determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss [the charges]’.
That reflects some internal concerns that the cases were not legally watertight on some technicalities. Further, courts had already dismissed parts of two cases because the FBI had not properly informed the defendants of their rights against self-incrimination.
Reading between the lines, the Trump administration, which brought the charges, was overreaching in its efforts to find spies among Chinese academics working at US universities.
IN MAY, CHINESE students with military connections were blocked from pursuing graduate study or postgraduate research at US universities.
By the executive order of US President Donald Trump, the United States suspended the issuance of non-immigrant F and J student visas to such Chinese nationals, effective June 1. It claimed that some students operated as ‘non-traditional collectors of intellectual property’ on behalf Beijing’s ‘wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of…the People’s Liberation Army’.
Newly unsealed papers filed in the San Francisco division of the US district court for the Northern District of California, are providing some detail to that accusation.
They depict an organised attempt by the PLA Air Force to send scientists from the Air Force Military Medical University (AFMMU), formerly the Fourth Military Medical University, and other military institutions to work on US university research programmes without revealing that the participants were in active service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Four people have been charged with related visa fraud, three of whom have been arrested in the United States, it was announced on July 23. Investigations have touched on 25 cities and are continuing.
The proximate case involves a bail hearing for Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with the court papers), a biologist researching at the University of California, Davis. She is said to work for the AFMMU’s Centre for Molecular Translational Medicine. (Translational medicine involves paring basic and clinical research to develop new drugs and medical products, and is a field getting a lot of attention in China.)
Tang is facing charges of visa fraud by making false statements on her application for her J-1 visa (for exchange programmes) last year. She is accused of falsely answering ‘no’ to three questions about whether she is a member of the military and the Party and whether she had had assistance in making the application. If convicted of the charges against her, which do not include any of IP theft at this point, she could face ten years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.
The US government wants her held in remand until she comes to trial, believing her a flight risk. However, Tang, who is in her late 30s, is the one of the quartet not in US custody as she has taken refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. This threatens to create a significant tension point between Washington and Beijing if she is not handed over to US authorities.
Having closed down the Houston consulate-general this week, citing the need to protect US intellectual property, the US president might be tempted to impose the same sanction on the San Francisco consulate, which US intelligence officials hold to be the centre of China’s espionage efforts in the United States.
A similar case, for which the court has also released the bail-hearing papers, involves Song Chen, who is in US custody. A Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, she has been working on neurological research there since the beginning of last year.
Like Tang, she is said to be a member of the AFMMU’s Civilian Cadre, technical specialists regarded as active military personnel. Her affiliations cited on her published academic papers have included the Department of Neurology at the Air Force General Hospital in Beijing, a clinical teaching hospital for the AFMMU. The court papers regarding her also include a photograph of her in uniform.
More substantive court filings about the cases against Song and Tang have not been made public.
However, in Song’s case, in addition to being accused of committing perjury over her visa application by falsely stating her military duty ended in 2011, she is charged with destroying evidence and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (a federal offence in the United States).
The bail papers refer to ‘several’ similar cases, two of which are identified, Wang Xin, a J-1 visa student at the University of California, San Francisco, and one at Duke University referred to as ‘LT’. Wang was arrested on June 7. The third Chinese student who has been detained has been named as Zhao Kaikai, who was arrested on he same day as Song.
Zhao is studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University. She is said to have attended the Air Force academy, Aviation University, and worked at the National University of Defense Technology, the PLA’s elite scientific research institution.
Chinese students in the United States have increasingly fallen under the suspicious eye of the Trump administration in its relentless determination to keep US technology out of Chinese hands. Its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to Congress identified the openness of academia and the scientific community in the United States as a vulnerability.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said after the May executive order was issued,
We will not tolerate [China’s] attempts to illicitly acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institution and research facilities for Chinese military ends.
The US administration defines military links as any connection with the military-civilian fusion policy. Thus an estimated up-to-5,000 of some 4000,000 Chinese students in the United States may be at risk if the administration can make good on its goal of finding a way to cancel existing visas held by Chinese graduate and postgraduate students, and not just stop new issuance.
Chinese students account for more than one-third of all international students in the United States, the largest national cohort. They are a rich source of tuition fees for US universities and colleges, one reason that visa applications for undergraduate courses are excluded from the new issuance suspension.
Overall, two in five international students in the United States are undergraduates. However, the more than one in three who are graduates and postgraduates and the further one in five who are working for US companies, as they can do after graduation to get practical experience, are weighted towards Chinese students, and especially in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) disciplines, where there is a shortage of qualified US job applicants. More than one-half of US graduate or higher- level STEM degrees are awarded to international students.
Senator Tom Cotton, a strident Republican critic of China, has introduced legislation into Congress that would bar Chinese graduate students from studying STEM-related subjects in the United States. His proposal is being fiercely resisted by the US tech industry, which scours the world for the best talent. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told a conference earlier this month that ‘many of the top graduate students are foreign-born and typically Chinese’.
None the less, a growing atmosphere of hostility towards Chinese students is noticeable in the United States as bilateral relations deteriorate over everything from trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus. At his regular press briefing earlier this week, in response to a question about the ordered closure of the consulate-general in Houston, Texas, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said,
For some time, the US government has been … intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and seizing their personal electronic devices, even detaining them without cause.
This week, the Chinese embassy in Washington started organising more charter flights home for Chinese students who have graduated, are about to see their visas expire, or are encountering ‘difficulties staying in the US’. It has already flown about 7,000 home who had been stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
This Bystander expects that to be characterised as a military evacuation by the more belligerent China hawks in the United States.
A REMINDER THAT the greatest deal in the history of the universe, or whatever US President Donald Trump called his Phase One trade deal with China, did not touch on one of the United States’ biggest beefs with Beijing, cybertheft.
Four alleged members of the PLA’s 54th Research Institute have been charged in the United States in connection with the cyberattack on the US credit rating company Equifax in 2017. Personal data of 147 million Americans and some UK and Canadian citizens were stolen in what was one of the largest data breaches in history.
The four were named as Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei. Their whereabouts are unknown at it is highly unlikely they will ever appear before a US court. The 54th Research Institute is based in Hebei and is overseen by the PLA’s Fourth Department, the military’s electronic and information warfare arm, including offensive cyber operations.
At a news conference announcing the nine-count indictment, US Attorney General William Barr called out other alleged cyberattacks by Chinese agents including on health insurer Anthem and the federal Office of Personnel Management reported in 2015, as well as a 2018 hack of the hotel chain Marriott.
US intelligence services believe that the Chinese government has been systematically accumulating personal information on US citizen and data-mining it for compromising details about individuals, including those in government and military service and academia, who could then be susceptible to blackmail and, thus, be potential recruits as spies. Washington also fears that this profiling exercise could also expose US intelligence agents working abroad.
Beijing has denied any such hacks and intentions.
When the Obama administration indicted five suspected PLA hackers in 2014 for allegedly breaking into the computer systems of several US manufacturing companies, it led to an agreement by China to cut back its cybertheft from US firms. Given the strained level of US-China relations tody, whether the Trump administration could get similar temporary relief if that is its aim in making this latest indictment public, is a different matter.
AN ARTILLERY UNIT from the PLA’s new 81st Group Army has conducted a live-fire anti-missile drill in recent days near Bohai Bay, so close to the border with North Korea. HQ-16A medium-range air-defence missiles (Red Flag 16s, seen above being loaded onto their truck launchers for the exercise) were successfully fired and took out their targets, military media say. The drill, held in ‘early September’, was a combat-readiness test against a surprise attack.
The HQ-16A has a maximum range of 40 kilometres and can take out a ballistic missile flying at either a very low or high altitude at a range of 3.5-18 kilometres. Such missiles are only likely to come from one place, and similarly the message from Beijing is being sent in the opposite, despite the defence ministry issuing a statement saying that the drill was routine annual training and did not target any specific country.
On September 5, at the same site, the PLA-Air Force, also live fired HQ-6s (seen below), a short-range air-defence missile intended to counter close range missiles, including those launched at sea, or aircraft flying at low-to-medium altitudes.
CHINESE MILITARY PERSONNEL are now en route for Djibouti where they will garrison China’s first overseas military base, which it started building last year at a cost of $590 million.
The photo above shows the departure from Zhanjiang in Guangdong province of the South Sea Fleet’s Jinggang Shan, a Yuzhao class Type 071 amphibious transport dock that had previously been deployed in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, along with a second PLA-Navy ship, China’s sole semi-submersible Donghai Island class naval auxiliary ship.
The Horn of Africa country, only half as big again as municipal Beijing, is already home to US, French and Japanese military bases with a Saudi Arabian one, like China’s, under construction.
China’s base will be used for supporting peacekeeping (Beijing has deployed its first UN peacekeeping combat troops in South Sudan), international anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden (in which China has taken part since 2008) and humanitarian aid.
It will also provide advanced support, should it be needed, for the more than 250,000 Chinese now working in Africa — and the Chinese investments where they work. Evacuations of nationals have already been needed in Libya and Yemen.
China stresses that Djibouti will be a logistics or support, not military base. The question is, however it is described, whether it is the first of one, several or many such overseas beachheads.
The US defence department’s recent annual report to the US Congress on China’s military prowess took this definitive view:
As China’s global footprint and international interests have gown, its military modernization program and become more focused on supporting missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea land security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). In February 2016, China began constitution of a military base in Djibouti that could be complete within the next year. China likely will seek to establish additional military based in countries with which it has long-standing, friendly relationships.
The US defence department pinpoints Pakistan as best fitting that bill. Given the growing economic interests at stake in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through both some insecure but strategically important territory, and China’s extensive role in building a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, that seems a logical deduction.
However, many other countries will not be receptive to the notion of hosting PLA bases, and Chinese military doctrine sees prowess in cyber, space and information warfare as more potent than building a traditional network of military allies.
Indeed, current doctrine sees power projection assets as a vulnerability in modern warfare. That alone will be cause for China to move cautiously on establishing further bases.
At the same time, Beijing will use China’s economic linkages to cement support among those with similar security interests and to deter adversary power projection in third countries, particularly that by the United States.
For now, gaining access to foreign commercial ports for as a logistics base and for pre-positioning of support of “far seas” deployments by the PLA-Navy is likely to be the order of the day. That, anyway, is what would be needed for the HA/DR operations that Beijing is likely to concentrate on while its military learns to find its way around the world.
THE LONG-AWAITED unified joint military command for the three services that comprise China’s military may happen as soon as the end of this year.
The South China Morning Post, quoting unnamed sources in the Jinan military command, said that the country’s seven military commands would be reduced to five to meet a deadline of January 1 imposed by President Xi Jinping as head of the Central Military Commission for a radical overhaul of the military command system of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
We examined the reasons for the overall last month when a lot of the top brass were brought together in Beijing to discuss the changes. In short, China’s army-centric military, originally devised for winning an internal civil war, is being turned into a fighting force fit for the 21st century in which army, navy and air force will play equal roles in China’s projection of force beyond its shores.
At the same time, the Party’s control over the PLA is being strengthened by replacing the PLA’s old four ‘headquarter’ staff departments with three new commissions and six departments reporting directly to the commission.
The SCMP says not all the top names for running the new military commands, commissions and departments have been finalized. However, it tips General Cai Yingting, head of the Nanjing command, to be head of the joint general staff and General Liu Yuan, who has been instrumental in driving Xi’s anti-corruption policy within the PLA as political commissar in the General Logistics department, to head the powerful new military discipline inspection committee.
WHAT MOST CAUGHT this Bystander’s eye at last week’s parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to end World War Two in Asia was what wasn’t on show: the aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and advanced blue-water ships being built for the PLA’s navy and the high-tech kit and code for its information, cyber and space warfare units.
Those are the cutting edge of China’s military modernization, not the ballistic missiles paraded through the streets of the capital on September 3rd with such patriotic pomp. We were slightly baffled by the fuss made in the popular prints of the DF-21D ballistic missile. The ‘carrier killer’ was, after all, deployed last year, officially acknowledged four years ago, and has been in development since the 1990s.
Like most of the hardware trundled through the streets in an overt display of hard-power prowess and progress, the DF-21D promises more than it can yet deliver operationally. It would take a bunch of the land-based DF-21s working in concert with aircraft and submarines to knock out a U.S. carrier group. Limited in range (1,750 kilometers), the missiles would, at best, provide a deterrent to a U.S. carrier coming to the aid of Taiwan or a regional neighbour in the event of conflict.
It is not yet the weapon of a world-class military force. More attention should have been paid to the DF-5B an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which can deliver a warhead to any part of the United States. The latest addition to China’s ICBM arsenal, the mobile DF-41, was notably absent from the parade — as was the J-20 fifth generation fighter aircraft. And it is the new Jin-class submarines that are letting China make progress toward a credible sea-based second-strike capability.
China’s armed forces long ago pivoted from their role in the 1980s as a land force to defend the long border with Russia to a more mobile force to face threats from the sea. However, they are still far short of the ability to provide open-sea protection as against coastal-waters defense, just as, for all the years of double-digit spending on defense, the PLA as a whole is still yet no match for U.S. forces should it come to all-out war, as the chart below underlines.
That is not to say that Beijing is not expanding its arsenal, particularly its nuclear weapons, nor that it lacks ambition to have world-class fighting forces. It has been pursuing the modernization of the PLA for decades to that end. Much like with the economy as a whole, it is doing so by replacing low-skilled labour out with higher-value-add technology.
The 300,000 reduction in the PLA’s numbers that President Xi Jinping announced on September 3rd is only the latest case in point. This cut will reduce the PLA’s strength to 2 million from 2.3 million by removing non-combatants, civilian employees and the lowest-skilled ground forces.
Once the cuts are done, though, it will mean the PLA will be about half the size it was when the modernization drive started three decades ago. (Many of those shed in the intervening years have found new employment in the People’s Armed Police Force and the Border Guard; a hard edge to internal security, a connection of long standing in military doctrine, remains.)
The PLA-Navy (PLA-N) has been in the vanguard of the modernization drive, followed by the PLA-Air Force (PLAAF), the strategic missile force, the Second Artillery Corps (SAC), and then the Ground Forces in that order.
The new shape of the PLA should be apparent by 2020, including a new joint command structure similar to that employed by the United States to manage lean, mobile and multi-functional rapid response units. The announcement of a joint command has been imminent for some time, suggesting that inter-service rivalry remains strong and an impediment.
It may be no coincidence that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has reached deep into the command of the ground forces. We would surmise that was to clear out entrenched opposition to restructuring the military high command as well as to clear a path for a new generation of officers rising on professional merit rather than their ability to buy promotion.
The long-term target is to have armed forces capable of winning ‘informationised’ wars by the middle of the century. That means armed forces well equipped with the so-called soft elements of hard power — satellite surveillance and the ability to disrupt an enemy’s information superiority by destroying its satellites, irregular warfare capacity, computer network operations, and space capabilities.
Little of that was on parade in Beijing last week, but it comprises the new PLA’s marching orders.
The U.S. military’s newly released annual assessment of China’s defense capabilities will surprise no one in saying that Beijing is improving its military training, weapons and surveillance so as to be able to conduct more sophisticated attacks against Washington and other adversaries closer to home. Neither is it any surprise that this is a result of China’s two-decades-long drive to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
If anything, this report to the U.S. Congress is a restatement of the justifications for Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’ announced in 2012. It is also perhaps the clearest statement to date of how that doctrinal shift is being tempered by U.S. budget cuts — and provides an implicit counterargument for curtailing them.
In light of those budget-cutting pressure, the Pentagon sees an opportunity for offshoring some of the cost of its increased Asian presence to its Asian allies. In every region of the world, the Pentagon says, it will seek to build the capacity of partners’ forces so that they, not Washington, can take the lead in providing security. That should also provide a bonus for America’s arms manufacturers who should see increased export demand for their wares as a result.
Equally predictably, Beijing has dismissed the report as a holdover of Cold War thinking, and says that its armed forces are still 20-30 years behind those of the U.S., which spends more than another nation on its military at 4% of GDP. Beijing also asserts that its military build-up is solely for defending its own sovereignty, though as the continuing conflicts in the South and East China Seas testify, sovereignty can be in the eye of the beholder.
“Probable” drone reconnaissance in the East China Sea was among the most significant military developments of last year identified by the Pentagon in its report. Others include:
air-defense upgrades to destroyers and frigates;
test flights of China’s Y-20 transport planes to move ground forces quickly across great distances;
at least eight launches to expand intelligence and surveillance from space;
integration of anti-radar missiles into the PLA Air Force’s fighter-bomber fleet; and
the PLA Navy’s development of long-range, over-the-horizon radar as a targeting mechanism for DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles carried on new Jiangdo-class corvettes, which previous Pentagon reports have identified as a threat to the U.S. new Littoral Combat ships.
The Pentagon’s assessment is couched in terms that suggest its working assumption for any future China-U.S. military conflict is that it would be a high-tech naval and missile fight. Thus the U.S. military’s need is to invest in technology more than capacity, and to ensure that its partner militaries in Tokyo, Manila and elsewhere in the region are willing and able to undertake U.S.-led training.
They may want to wait until after 2016 when the U.S. will have a new administration which may have a new set of priorities. Beijing will be quite happy to continue its PLA modernization in the meantime.
This Bystander has been in sufficient army mess halls and enjoyed sufficient banquets and receptions to know that a drop or two of alcohol may, on occasion, get consumed. But even we were slightly taken aback to see that the abstemious Xi Jinping’s ban on senior military officials holding extravagant alcoholic banquets was enough to knock more than 5% off the share price of Kweichow Moutai. The state owned conglomerate counts being China’s leading distiller among a range of business interests from IT to airport investment. Most pertinently, it makes Moutai, the premium white spirit that is a PLA favorite. We could do nothing else but take a reviving glass to steady our nerves.
One can see pretty much anything one wants in the 2012 defense budget China announced last weekend, and which the National People’s Congress (NPC) will approve this week: more military build-up from an increasingly assertive regional power; catch-up spending for a developing nation’s armed forces still in need of substantial modernization; even a proxy for the expected slowdown in the economy overall. It is arguably all those things, but most of all it is pretty much more of the same. China has had double-digit increases in its official defense budget every year since 1989, with the exception of 2009’s 7.5%.
Ahead of the NPC’s opening, spokesman, Li Zhaoxing announced that defense spending in 2012 would be 670.2 billion yuan ($110 billion), a rise of 11.2% on 2011’s figure. It is the first time the budget has topped $100m, if that arbitrary threshold matters to you. The proposed increase for this year is smaller than last year’s 12.7% rise, reflecting, as promised under the current five-year plan, the slowdown in the overall economy.
This year, for the first time, China says, it is including weapons R&D and acquisition in its numbers, which have in the past been overwhelmingly for personnel pay, maintenance and equipment. Quite what difference this makes to the headline number is unclear. How big a bite, for example, is the new aircraft carrier, or China’s new anti-ship missiles and J-10B jet fighters taking out of the official defense budget, if, indeed, that is where they are being accounted?
As is well accepted, the official defense budget is reckoned to account for less than two-thirds of China’s total military spending. The People’s Armed Police has its own budget, as does the militia. Some, if not all, of both budgets can reasonably be considered military spending. But more opaque is the question of how much is being spent under the aegis of the space program and the development of the strategically important “national champion” industries on R&D that has dual military-civilian use, or in the space program’s case, pure military use.
Not only does China still spend less than a third as much on defense as the world’s largest military power, the U.S. (however you add up the figures), much of the operational deployment of China’s new military toys is still years away. Nor are its aircraft, missiles and ships yet comparable in the aggregate with those in the most advanced fighting forces, despite the ambitious development of a huge domestic aerospace and defense contracting industry.
Pravda reports from Russia that China is trying to buy 48 of Russia’s new Su-35 fighter jets. The $4 billion deal is being held up Moscow’s concerns that their advanced frontline fighter will be cloned by the Chinese military, as happened with its Su-27 (the inspiration for China’s J-10) and the Su-30 (the J-11). If this deal comes off, it would be the first time that Beijing has bought foreign fighters for the PLA Air Force in more than a decade. What is unclear is whether this is an attempt to leap-frog to the future or a deal that is necessary because domestic development is falling behind. Aircraft engines and radar systems, we are told, are the critical areas where progress is not as rapid as hoped.
That may be one reason that President assumptive Xi Jinping reportedly rebuffed U.S. President Barack Obama’s suggestion during his recent visit to Washington that the two countries’ military hold regular talks, as their economic and security officials do. A peep behind the curtain may reveal a less than flattering picture for the world’s second most expensive military force. Xi, who has close ties with the army–his father was one of Mao’s revolutionary generals before falling from grace–will not want to embarrass the PLA, and especially not while he is assuming the reins of power. And just as he will want to keep his military onside during the transition, he will want to keep America’s off-balance and guessing to the extent he can.
There is no doubt that Beijing will continue to build-up its military forces, particularly the navy, which is developing submarine and carrier fleets to the extent it can be a power in regional waters, the logistics capability of the national command and support infrastructure, and the capacity to fight in space and cyberspace. It wants a modern, self-sufficient fighting force by the early 2020s. The 2012 military budget just keeps it marching in that direction.