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February 5, 2021 – Stealth War Newsletter 23

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri February, 2021, Age: 3 years



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February 5, 2020

Strategic Indicator
This issue’s number to watch

1.15 Billion

The number of trips estimated to take place during this year’s Lunar New Year holiday travels in China, down 20 percent from last year’s numbers as the country ramps up travel restrictions and lockdowns to control a coronavirus resurgence ahead of what is usually China’s busiest travel season.

Top Stories

A new report by the BBC that alleges systemic rape throughout the Chinese government’s internment camps in Xinjiang has refocused global attention on the atrocities that China is committing against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing has consistently denied all claims of human rights violations in the region, instead insisting the camps are “vocational training centers” aimed at combating terrorism and poverty. The U.S. has labelled China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide, and a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday that the U.S. was “deeply disturbed” by the report, adding, “these atrocities shock the conscience and must be met with serious consequences.” But the White House noted on the same day that the U.S. currently is not engaged in any discussions to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, despite mounting international calls for the Games to be moved or boycotted because of human rights concerns.

Boycotting the Olympic Games could quickly enter fraught political territory for countries and corporate sponsors—the IOC maintains that the Games are a “force for good” and that disputes between countries should be more effectively addressed via other mechanisms. The U.S. resisted similar calls to boycott the 2008 Games in Beijing over the Tibet issue. Nevertheless, the UK has not ruled out a boycott of the 2022 games. The British parliament also passed a so-called “genocide clause” through its upper house this week, paving the way for domestic courts to review a bilateral trade agreement and judge whether China is committing genocide.

Yang Jiechi, director of the CCP Central Committee Office of Foreign Affairs and China’s top diplomat, gave remarks on Tuesday at a virtual event held by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Yang called on the U.S. to change course from “misguided policies” set during the Trump administration and stressed that China was ready and willing to deepen bilateral cooperation. His speech echoed previous comments by Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng and Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai last week as well as Foreign Minister Wang Yi in December, which called for a “reset” of the bilateral relationship in the post-Trump era. Yang is the highest-ranking Chinese official to publicly discuss the U.S.-China relationship since Biden’s inauguration.

His remarks showed an apparent disconnect with the growing reality that the new administration’s China policy is likely to bear substantial similarities with that of its predecessor, with Biden calling China the U.S.’ “most serious competitor” in his first major foreign policy speech on Thursday and caveating, “we’re ready to work with Beijing, when it’s in America’s interest to do so.” The president notably still has not yet spoken directly with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, even as his administration has undertaken a flurry of moves to set its foreign policy priorities. Earlier this week, Axios reported that staffing for the National Security Council appears to be bearing out the administration’s “whole-of-government” focus on China, and the Wall Street Journal described Biden’s China policy as being led by a “team of rivals” drawing on a deep bench of expertise to craft a multi-faceted policy based on alliances with like-minded democracies. A State Department official said on Tuesday that the administration wanted to ensure it was in “lockstep” with allies such as South Korea and India before engaging directly with Beijing.

The Biden administration appears to be offering a cautious picture of support for Taiwan as tensions between the island and the mainland rise. Chinese officials and state media have noticeably stepped up their rhetoric and the PLA increased drilling near the Taiwan Strait in January. At the same time, public opinion polling shows consistent and increasing Taiwanese support for independence. Reflecting this, legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) recently proposed potentially incendiary amendments removing references to unification with the Chinese mainland in the nation’s constitution.

On Thursday, the U.S. Navy conducted its first transit of the contentious Taiwan Strait in 2021. The operation, completed by the Arleigh Burke-class Navy destroyer U.S.S. John S. McCain, is also the first under the Biden administration. The Biden administration also expressed strong support for Taiwan on January 23, as the island faced military pressure from China, which had sent several dozen aircraft into the country’s southwestern air defense zone. In addition, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said over the weekend at a discussion hosted by the United States Institute of Peace that the U.S. must be prepared to “impose costs” on China for the “bellicosity and threats that it is projecting toward Taiwan.”

But there are limits to the U.S.’ support for Taiwan. The State Department has said that the United States’ One China policy “has not changed.” And recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reveals a gap between American opinion leaders and the public on supporting Taiwanese independence. Less than half of the U.S. public approved the use of American troops to defend Taiwan from a hypothetical mainland attack, while Republican and Democratic leaders approved by 85 percent and 63 percent, respectively. 55 percent of the public explicitly opposed such a move, demonstrating the public’s weariness for foreign wars.

New research appears to show the increasing effectiveness of a network of fake social media accounts key to a massive online influence effort to push a pro-China agenda on a variety of issues, including 5G. The AI research firm Graphika has followed these developments, dubbing the network associated with pro-China misinformation on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook “Spamouflage.” While the network’s previous operations appeared to be limited to an echo chamber of fake, computer-generated accounts, its content has begun to demonstrate a limited but growing ability to reach real users across the world. Graphika has also uncovered an influence campaign in Belgium that uses many of the same tactics as Spamouflage which appeared to promote telecommunications policy in favor of the Chinese company Huawei. Although the identity of the campaign’s perpetrators remains unclear, it appears to signal a new development, in which misinformation tactics previously used to push political objectives are now also being leveraged to achieve corporate goals.

Huawei has faced a recent battle to shake off accusations that it poses a national security risk and participate in the building out of global 5G networks. The U.S., Australia, Britain, Sweden and India have notably banned the installation of Huawei equipment in national 5G networks; Germany and other countries are still mulling over the decision. Most recently, Brazil looks likely to allow Huawei to participate in its 5G auctions after the company hired a former Brazilian president to lobby on its behalf.

Finally, the British media watchdog Ofcom revoked the Chinese state-owned media group China Global Television Network (CGTN)’s broadcasting license on February 4, following a year-long investigation precipitated by a complaint from the advocacy group Safeguard Defenders. Ofcom found that the Chinese Communist Party bears ultimate editorial control over CGTN’s broadcasting, which violates a British law barring TV stations from being controlled or owned by political parties. CGTN previously breached British media law by airing a U.K. citizen’s alleged forced confession in July 2020. Hours after Ofcom’s announcement, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson decried the decision as “political oppression, double standards and hypocrisy.” China has also called on the British broadcaster BBC to issue an apology and alleged “fake news” regarding its recent reporting of early Chinese missteps in handling COVID-19 and alleged systemic rape in Xinjiang.

The Ofcom decision comes amid rapidly cooling relations between the United Kingdom and China. After the passage of China’s security law in Hong Kong, the UK outlined a plan to allow 5.2 million Hong Kong dual citizens to receive British citizenship. China recently announced that it would not recognize British National Overseas (BNO) citizenship for Hong Kongers. As a result, millions of Hong Kongers have been forced to choose between British and Hong Kong citizenship. This week, it has also been confirmed that Hong Kong is targeting dual nationality citizens by stopping banks from recognizing the BNO passport as a valid form of identification.

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