February 26, 2021 – Stealth War Newsletter 26

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri February, 2021, Age: 2 years



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February 26, 2021

Welcome to the Stealth War Newsletter, a collection of the top 5 recent news items, collected on The Jamestown Foundation’s new website, stealth-war-org.cdn-pi.com. To continue to receive this weekly collection, click the button below to subscribe.  

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Strategic Indicator
This issue’s number to watch

417 kg

The amount of rare-earth materials required in each F-35 fighter jet, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Top Stories

Amid security competition between the United States and China, supply chain resiliency has become a key concern. U.S. sanctions on Beijing, including computer chips, have battered China’s tech industry. In addition, the U.S. and China have both increased their activity in the South China Sea. China has reportedly eyed its next move to be targeting essential materials in the U.S. military supply chain. China controls 80 percent of the global supply of 17 rare earth minerals, much of which is mined in western China. Rare earth minerals are critical to the production of American fighter jets and sophisticated weapons, as well as modern smart technology. The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recently raised a proposal to limit the export of rare earth minerals. At the same time, it has boosted its mining quota for rare earth minerals to 84,000 tons in its first batch, a sign of increased investment in its own military. To give one example of dangers of that rare earths supply chain: China controls 80 percent of global cobalt supplies through its ownership of mining rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo. Cobalt is crucial to the production of electric vehicles (EV), and Beijing is poised to leverage its influence here for its own advantage, with heavy investments in domestic EV technologies.

In light of all this, the Biden administration recently ordered a review of U.S. supply chain resilience in key industries to identify potential weaknesses and bolster supply chain independence in the future.

Within the past week, two countries have passed legislative measures recognizing China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide. In Canada, the House of Commons voted near-unanimously to pass the motion. In response, Chinese ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu called the move an interference in China’s domestic affairs. The Netherlands followed with a similar motion on Thursday. Both Canada and the Netherlands passed non-binding parliamentary resolutions, and government ministers in both countries abstained or voted against the measures, demonstrating the delicacy of the debates. By approving the declarations, Canada and the Netherlands join the United States in formally labelling China’s repression of the Uyghurs—including mass surveillance, detainment, and forced labor—as genocide. Growing pressure has also led to calls to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Canada’s parliamentary vote included an amendment to call on the International Olympic Committee to move the event if China continues its abuses in Xinjiang. In the U.S., Representative John Katko (R-NY) sent President Biden a formal letter urging that the United States boycott the games. Amid mounting pressure, especially from Congress, the Biden administration has signalled its consideration to boycott the games. On the other hand, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected calls to boycott the Olympics. While Beijing has condemned the “politicization” of the games, it is clear that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs will remain a potent subject leading up to the event.

Even as the international debate on defining China’s actions against Uyghur Muslims heated up, China made a strong bid to promote its narrow, development-driven and sovereignty-constrained definition of human rights at the United Nations (UN) this week. Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for a “people-centered approach for global human rights” in his remarks to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), marking the first time that a Chinese government official addressed the top human rights body. Wang defended China’s policies towards Xinjiang and Hong Kong, emphasizing “economic” over “political” rights. As the Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi notes, this is why “Beijing consistently brings up economic growth statistics to defend its human rights.” China has also pushed for a definition of human rights that foregrounds a human right to “security,” arguing that its actions against its own citizens have prevented terrorism and separatism and consequently justifying its crack downs against more traditional human rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and association. This bold shifting of definition is attractive to other illiberal countries, and China’s previous efforts to influence the UNHRC have not lacked support.

Chinese media have also gleefully targeted domestic problems in the U.S. to attack the West’s moral superiority, taking a page out of Russia’s disinformation playbook. Citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to rage out of control in the U.S., and massive blizzards that affected millions across the American heartland last week, a commentary in the official state media organization Xinhua noted, “the dire situation has once again busted the human rights fairy tales the world’s sole superpower has flaunted for decades, and revealed the hollowness behind the country’s brassy promises…” And as issues of white nationalism and racism dominated the U.S. political discourse, an incendiary article in the state tabloid Global Times jeered that the English-speaking Five Eyes national security alliance represented an “axis of white supremacy” that “hijacked” global diplomacy and multilateralism.

On February 23, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published analysis on reported unregistered flights between Yangon, Myanmar and Kunming, China. International flights were banned following the coup by the Tatmadaw, the name for Myanmar’s military junta, which took place on February 1. Myanmar Airlines claim the planes were carrying seafood exports, but this is highly unlikely due to the lengths to which the planes in question went to in order to hide their activities, from turning off their transponders and not including their flight departures and arrivals in airport databases. The contents of the plane is unknown, but the news comes as some foreign policy analysts consider the effects of the coup on Chinese influence in the country, and the region as a whole.

Popular thinking at first believed that the coup would benefit Chinese interests. Western sanctions on Tatmadaw leaders would push the country closer to Beijing, and an authoritarian government without any other international backers might provide China with more leeway in the country. However, Beijing is unlikely to view the coup in Myanmar as a blessing.

The Tatmadaw has often viewed China with suspicion, and as a result have often bought arms from Russia in order to balance the relationship. Beijing, meanwhile, has often been agitated by the junta’s incompetence erratic behavior. Furthermore, Chinese diplomats have spent the past five years investing time in the National League for Democracy, the pro-democracy party led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who is now under house arrest—time which now appears to have been wasted. Though China blocked a UN Security Council condemnation of the coup, instability threatens both Chinese investments in the country, and future infrastructure projects. Though unlikely to openly condemn the coup, the Tatmadaw is once again causing issues for Beijing.

On February 20, Corps Commanders of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and their Indian counterparts began a tenth round of talks on the border crisis. Both sides had pulled back to the areas of Pangong Lake agreed upon in the ninth round of talks on February 19, representing the first disengagement agreement since the crisis began in May of last year. Despite the progress, disagreement remains at the Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang Plains areas of the border.

While the confrontations in the western sector of the Sino-Indian border have garnered the most attention, there remains ongoing concerns in the eastern sector. Besides reports of fighting breaking out in Naku La, in India’s Sikkim province in the end of January, China’s rapid infrastructure upgrades in the region have raised national security concerns in New Delhi. Across the border from the Indian-controlled, though disputed, province of Arunachal Pradesh, east of Sikkim, China is constructing three bridges, a new 66-kilometer road and troop sheds. As said by Sreeram Chaulia, dean at O.P. Jindal Global University’s School of International Affairs for a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “China often settles one dispute at a specific point on the border and then ignites new ones as part of a long-term pressure campaign.” Though the disengagement at Pangong Lake is good news for peace in the region, it is unlikely that China this border confrontation will cease to be an issue any time soon.

Potentially prolonging the crisis, and wider Sino-Indian enmity, is the Chinese government’s orchestrated media strategy surrounding the awarding of medals to five frontier soldiers for actions taken during the confrontation in Galwan. Four of the awards were given posthumously. The news was released this past Friday, timed to coincide with the day after Chinese citizens returned to work following a national seven day holiday to celebrate the Lunar New Year and heralded by new footage of the confrontation.

This has, predictably, inflamed nationalism among Chinese netizens. Much abuse was heaped on the Indian Embassy in Beijing’s Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Chinese censors have in the past been careful to manage nationalist outpourings online in order to avoid pressure from the home front to pursue policies Beijing thought unwise. But by blatantly allowing anti-Indian sentiment to fester online, China is signaling its willingness to confront, and potentially escalate, border crises with India in the future.

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