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March 5, 2021 – Stealth War Newsletter 27

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri March, 2021, Age: 3 years



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March 5, 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

6 percent

The target GDP growth rate for 2021, as announced in the Government Work Report delivered at the National People’s Congress on March 5. China notably scrapped the GDP measure after the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and analysts were uncertain whether it would make its return this year. It’s worth mentioning, however, that there is no specific growth target included in the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025), which was released at the same time. 

Top Stories

Despite concerns over efficacy and safety, Chinese-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines have been widely deployed around the globe. The Associated Press reports that China has pledged more than half a billion doses to over 45 countries, with 25 nations already beginning inoculations using Chinese-made vaccines. Currently, China has approved four vaccines for public use. Unlike vaccines produced from Western firms such as Pfizer or Moderna, which have used pioneering mRNA technology, China’s vaccines largely rely on more traditional methods and have less stringent shipment and storage requirements, making them more attractive to developing countries in hotter climates. Richer countries have purchased the bulk of vaccine supplies globally, and the WHO-led COVAX initiative to supply vaccines to poorer countries has experienced delays. In the meantime, China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy”—which encompasses bilateral sales agreements as well as outright donations—has targeted low- and middle-income countries, even as the vaccine rollout at home has been concerningly slow.

In Chile, the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech Ltd stepped in after a delay in Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine deliveries, shipping four million vaccine doses that allowed Chile to launch one of the most successful vaccination campaigns in the world. Using Chinese vaccines, Chile has now achieved the fifth highest vaccination rate in the world. The lack of transparency surrounding China’s vaccine development, however, has not gone unnoticed. In Poland, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski stated that he did not recommend Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine given a lack of data. The announcement is a blow to vaccine purchasing talks between the two countries. Although the Sinopharm vaccine has already been deployed in Hungary and Serbia, it has not received approval by the European Union. Nevertheless, at a time when wealthier nations are being accused of “vaccine nationalism,” China (along with Russia and India) is one of the few players that has filled the global need for vaccines.

Amid national headlines bringing attention to the increase in racism directed against Asian Americans during the pandemic, researchers and academics have called for a revamping of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) China Initiative. Launched in 2018, the China Initiative was focused around a broad mandate to counter economic espionage, trade secret theft, and counter malign foreign influence on the part of the Chinese state. In an annual review last year, the DOJ identified academia as “one of our most vulnerable sectors, because its traditions of openness, and the importance of international exchanges to the free flow of ideas, leave it vulnerable to PRC exploitation.” Accordingly, prosecutors launched more than ten cases in relation to visa and tax fraud, smuggling, and other charges against academics across the country and obtained three convictions. But critics have responded that many of the cases involve prosecutorial overreach and racial profiling. In one case that was previously reported in this newsletter, charges against a researcher at the University of Virginia were dropped after prosecutors found he’d had authorized access to “some portion” of proprietary information found on his computer. The law professor Margaret Lewis has argued that while the DOJ is not overstating the threat, it is framing it in a problematic way: “Using ‘China’ as the glue connecting cases prosecuted under the Initiative’s umbrella creates an overinclusive conception of the threat and attaches a criminal taint to entities that possess…connections with ‘China.’”

Nevertheless, the U.S. has pushed ahead with prosecutions of at least five researches arrested on charges of visa fraud last year. A new report by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has recommended more transparency on research funding and partnerships at universities to combat the dangers of knowledge theft from Chinese entities. The report also proposes creating a database of individuals and entities to flag risks in advance. One commissioner warned that a previous lack of federal guidance on the issue has contributed to a “sledgehammer approach” to protecting academic research that creates fear and stifles innovation.

Premier Li Keqiang has revealed plans to only allow “patriots” to govern Hong Kong in yet another move to tighten Beijing’s grip on the city at the 2020 National People’s Congress (NPC). The NPC will pass an overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system in order to remove democratic voices in favor of pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politicians. The NPC announcement comes after the Hong Kong government charged 47 pro-democracy activists on Sunday in violation of Beijing’s National Security Law. China’s increasing control over Hong Kong follows the mainland’s authoritarian approach to civil liberties. While Hong Kong previously did not have controls over its Internet, unlike mainland China, service providers in February began to block access to websites such as Taiwan Transitional Justice Commission and activist page HKChronicles. Authorities have also proposed a real-name registration system for SIM cards, used in mainland China to surveil telecommunications. In its judicial system, the National Security Law has been used to deny bail to figures including Jimmy Lai, media tycoon and owner of Apple Daily. Finally, the appointment of a new head at public broadcaster Radio Free Hong Kong was decried as an erosion of the media outlet’s editorial independence. Hong Kong has witnessed severe restrictions on its civil liberties within the past year, and the NPC’s agenda only seeks to consolidate the central government’s control over the city.

This Wednesday, the Biden administration released an “interim” national security strategy (NSS), emphasizing the use of diplomacy and democratic governance as the country’s greatest tools to combatting the new threats. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave his first major address following the release of the document, fleshing out the administration’s view of America’s role in the world.

The NSS and Blinken speech spoke at length on ending the pandemic, “forever wars,” and reducing the danger of nuclear nonproliferation, but notably, they gave substantial focus to China. Blinken described the county as, “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” having, “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system…”

The Biden administration linked domestic revival with foreign policy, following the Trump administration’s skeptical view of trade agreements. Admitting that many in the administration had, “previously argued for free trade agreements,” Blinken noted that, from now on, the Biden team would work toward a foreign policy that would benefit the “American middle class.” In what could be viewed as a thinly veiled threat to China, Blinken promised that the US government, “will use every tool to stop countries from stealing our intellectual property or manipulating their currencies to get an unfair advantage.” The Biden team also promises to work hand-in-hand with international allies—America’s “greatest strategic asset”—and promising to “modernize” NATO, as well as alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea, to meet the challenge from China.

The document and Blinken speech cement a notable shift in US foreign policy. Like the Trump administration, Biden is centering US national security strategy on China, with a focus on revitalizing the American economy and deemphasizing international free trade agreements.

On Sunday, the New York Times published a lengthy report which theorized that the blackouts which crippled the Indian metropolis of Mumbai last October may have been the result of a Chinese cyberattack. The blackouts in Mumbai, which has a population of some twenty million people, shut down train travel, the stock market and forced hospitals to fall back on emergency generators at a time when the coronavirus was spreading through India. A study by the U.S. cybersecurity research firm Recorded Future found that Chinese malware had infected Indian control systems that manage electric supply across the country. Recorded Future could not confirm whether the malware was activated but notified Indian authorities of its findings.

India and China had also been locked in a bitter border dispute high up in the Himalayas during that time. More than 20 Indian soldiers were reportedly killed in the fighting. In February, the Chinese government confirmed that 4 PLA soldiers had died as well. Following the NYT report, Indian authorities have said that their investigations into the power outage determined that human error was the culprit and not Chinese malware. These findings come at a time when Indian-Chinese border tensions are waning and the two countries are taking small steps to repair their relations. Indian authorities did admit that they had identified a number of “trojan horse” cyberattack attempts on Mumbai’s power system and other regional “despatch centres”. But these were unable to penetrate the primary control mechanisms at these power distribution centers and succeeded only in infecting local computers.

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