March 19, 2021 – Stealth War Newsletter 29

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri March, 2021, Age: 2 years



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March 19, 2021

Welcome to the Stealth War Newsletter, a collection of the top 5 recent news items, collected on The Jamestown Foundation’s new website, 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

31.5 percent

The amount by which China’s industrial output increased in January and February compared to the same period in 2020.

Top Stories

At the beginning of this week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held meetings with counterparts in Japan and South Korea, where they sharply criticized Beijing’s “coercion and aggression” in the Indo-Pacific region and reaffirmed long-standing diplomatic and security alliances. As Austin made his way to New Delhi, Blinken traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, where he and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Chinese State Councilor Wang Yang and Director of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi, China’s two highest-level foreign affairs officials, for the first direct bilateral talks between Beijing and the new Biden administration.

The two-day talks got off to a rough start on Thursday, as Blinken accused China of threatening “the rules based order that maintains global stability” and Yang shot back that the U.S. was a hypocritical bully and called on America to instead focus on its own domestic human rights issues. Both sides accused each other of breaking protocol and turning what was supposed to be a staid diplomatic meeting into an overt representation of the declining bilateral relationship. Afterwards, the U.S. side complained that, The Chinese delegation … seems to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance.” A U.S. official later made efforts to emphasize that subsequent talks behind closed doors were “substantive, serious and direct” and ran over the planned two hours, and the two sides continue talks today on issues such as cybersecurity, climate change, and trade policy.

The U.S. State Department announced on Wednesday that it would impose financial sanctions on 24 Chinese officials for their role in eroding democracy in Hong Kong. Among those sanctioned is Wang Chen, a member of China’s Politburo.

The sanctions appeared to have had a strong effect on China, which promptly decried them. Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Wednesday that the latest round of Hong Kong sanctions “fully exposed the sinister intentions of the United States to interfere in China’s internal affairs.” The claim that countries should not meddle in China’s “internal affairs” has become a common refrain of late in China as it seeks to parry international pressure on issues ranging from its crackdown in Hong Kong; its bellicosity in the South China Sea; its threatening behavior towards Taiwan; and its allegedly genocidal conduct in Xinjiang Province.

The U.S. was not alone in its attempt to exert pressure on an unchastened and aggressive China. Also on Wednesday, the E.U.’s Ambassadors agreed to a suite of sanctions, similar to those imposed by the U.S. State Department, on four Chinese individuals and one state entity for human right violations stemming from the treatment of the ethnic minority Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Similar to their playbook at the Anchorage meeting, the Chinese struck back with claims that Uighur detention centers were no different than European reform camps set-up to de-radicalize European Muslims and intimated that sanctions based on lies would be construed as a direct threat on Chinese security and development.

Three Pacific island nations have invalidated the bids to build an undersea cable, according to news reports on Thursday. The optical cables would have connected Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru and cost $54.45 million. Funding was to be provided by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The companies bidding on the project included the Japanese NEC, French Alcatel Submarine Networks and Chinese Huawei Marine. Huawei Marine, which was founded as a division of Huawei before being acquired by China’s Hengtong Group, submitted the lowest bid for the project and had been expected to win it.

The invalidation of the bids seems to be the latest case of U.S.-China strategic competition affecting regional infrastructure projects. In December 2020, the United States warned the Pacific island countries against taking Huawei Marine’s bid, stating that it would pose a security threat. The project connecting the Pacific island countries was also going to include a connection to the U.S. territory of Guam through a cable that has already been laid. The United States is also responsible for the defense of Micronesia through the decades-old Compact of Free Association. Japan and Australia also raised security concerns with the three countries.

This cancellation also follows news that Facebook dropped a planned project to lay an underseas cable connecting California to Hong Kong and Taiwan due to pressure from U.S. officials. As stated by a Facebook spokesperson, “Due to ongoing concerns from the U.S. government about direct communications links between the United States and Hong Kong, we have decided to withdraw our FCC application.”

Chinese firms are required by law to cooperate with Beijing’s intelligence and security services, raising concerns that strategically important optical cables produced by Huawei Marine could be used to spy on the United States and its allies. Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru are likely to reopen the bidding process in the near future, but might exclude Chinese companies due to the security threats they bring to the table.

Last week, the U.S. Commerce Department announced amended licenses for companies to sell to Huawei. The new rule stipulates that items cannot be used “with or in any 5G devices,” further restricting Huawei from accessing components from American firms necessary to develop its 5G technology. As a result, existing contracts with Huawei under older licenses may be discontinued. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also announced on Tuesday that it would strip three Chinese telecoms companies of their operating licenses. According to the agency, China Unicom Americas, Pacific Networks and Comnet did not adequately address concerns over their links to the Chinese government. The move would likely bar them from U.S. markets. In restricting ties with and operations of major Chinese tech companies, the Biden administration aims to address mounting security fears.

Chinese firms have pushed back on U.S. regulations. Recently, a federal judge ruled in favor of Xiaomi and struck down its inclusion in a Trump-era blacklist on Chinese technology firms. After the ruling, Reuters reported that several banned Chinese companies have approached U.S. law firms to file similar complaints in the hopes of being removed from the blacklist. Success of the legal strategy is yet to be seen.

A long-awaited World Health Organization (WHO) report based on findings from the WHO’s visit to China earlier this year is set to be published next week. Critics have raised concerns about the WHO’s level of access and China’s lack of transparency throughout the pandemic, politicizing the search into the coronavirus’ origins. Although the WHO team appeared satisfied with arrangements with the Chinese government, scientists in the 10-member investigatory body have acknowledged that their investigation received political pressure, but emphasized that the results of the report will have “unanimous” support from the team. In an interview with Global Times, Chinese team lead Liang Wannian asserted that the WHO report faced political pressures, calling it “a huge disrespect to the work of our scientists.” Despite sustained concerns over political factors that may have influenced the report, the WHO team reaffirmed their confidence in their work.

While the international community rapidly innoculates its populations in an effort to counter the pandemic, China has emerged as a prominent leader in distributing COVID-19 vaccines. China has primarily targeted exports to low- and middle-income countries that have struggled to gain access to vaccines, which are being bought up by richer nations. Recently, the New York Times reported on Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy with Brasilia. While Brazil sided with the United States over security concerns regarding 5G technology and Chinese surveillance, it has struck a softer tone while it struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, raising fears that China’s vaccine diplomacy may be increasing its already-worrying influence in the U.S.’ backyard.

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