5 September 2020

The Next Front in the India-China Conflict Could Be a Thai Canal

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Forget the new Cold War in the Pacific between the United States and China. There’s a much warmer war already going on between India and China that has killed at least 20 on a disputed border in the high Himalayas. At sea, China is attempting to encircle India with a series of alliances and naval bases evocatively known as the string of pearls. China’s greatest vulnerability in its strategy to dominate the Indian Ocean—and thereby India—is the Malacca Strait, a narrow sea lane separating Singapore and Sumatra, through which so much marine traffic must pass that it’s both a lifeline for China’s seaborne trade and the main path for its navy toward South Asia, and points further west. With regards to China’s rivalry with India—and its strategic ambitions in Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and beyond—anything that reduces the dependency on one narrow chokepoint between potentially hostile powers is vital.

That’s where the most ambitious of all of Beijing’s regional infrastructure projects—the controversial Belt and Road Initiative—comes in: a long-mooted canal across southern Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, the narrowest point of the Malay peninsula, which would open a second sea route from China to the Indian Ocean. This could allow the Chinese navy to quickly move ships between its newly constructed bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean without diverting more than 700 miles south to round the tip of Malaysia. That would make the Thai canal a crucial strategic asset for China—and a potential noose around Thailand’s narrow southern neck. If Thailand allows China to invest up to $30 billion in digging the canal, it may find that the associated strings are attached forever.

US seeks formal alliance similar to Nato with India, Japan and Australia, State Department official says

Robert Delaney

The US government’s goal is to get the grouping of four countries and others in the region to work together as a bulwark against “a potential challenge from China” and “to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world … ultimately to align in a more structured manner”, said Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun.

“The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures,” he said. “They don‘t have anything of the fortitude of Nato or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not, I think, not inclusive enough and so … there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this.”

“Remember even Nato started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries [initially] chose neutrality over Nato membership,” Biegun added.

Afghanistan frees nearly 200 Taliban prisoners to push peace talks

Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan has freed nearly 200 Taliban prisoners to spur long-delayed peace talks, as a team of negotiators readies to fly this week to Qatar’s capital, Afghan officials said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a consultative grand assembly, known as Loya Jirga, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 7, 2020. Afghan Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

The prisoners formed part of a group of 400 jailed “hardcore” Islamist separatists whose stalled release had appeared set to delay talks between the government and the insurgent group to end nearly two decades of war.

“The Afghan government has released another batch of the remaining Taliban prisoners and the work is still underway to move the prisoner exchange process forward,” Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said in a statement.

Southeast Asia is Ground Zero in the New U.S.-China Conflict—and Beijing Is Winning


Sometimes the signs are scattershot. Investigative journalists imprisoned for doing their job in Thailand or the Philippines. Another forest razed to make way for an industrial-size plantation producing rubber or palm oil in Myanmar or Laos. Fishers and farmers losing their livelihoods in Vietnam after the construction of more than a dozen dams along the Mekong River. A high-speed rail system under construction in Malaysia using credit that drives the country deeper into debt. Casinos rising up to transform Sihanoukville, Cambodia, into an Asian Las Vegas.

At other times, China’s growing presence is visible for all to see. Chinese tourists crowding tropical islands, ancient temples, and shopping malls. Deal-makers from Guangzhou and Shanghai shuffling in and out of hotel lobbies and government offices. Chinese navy ships bullying neighboring countries’ fishing boats, military patrols, and oil exploration vessels to assert Beijing’s dubious claims over the South China Sea.

What Can America Learn From Chinese Weapons?

by Kyle Mizokami

Key Point: These Chinese weapons highlight holes in U.S. capabilities.

We all know that there are plenty of U.S. weapons the Chinese military would like to get its hands on. The Arsenal of Democracy churns out some of the best, most technologically advanced and versatile weapons in service anywhere. China is willing to steal American military technology to help advance its own military research and development programs.

The United States on the other hand…well, there is probably not a single Chinese weapon that, in a direct comparison, is better than its American equivalent and that probably won’t change for another twenty years. So if we want to talk about Chinese weapons for the American military, we have to think about holes in current American capabilities. There aren’t many, but here are Chinese weapons that might make the American military a little better.

AG600 Seaplane

A Chinese Invasion of Taiwan? Don't Lose Sleep Over It

by Gary Sands

Here's What You Need To Remember: Despite recent heated rhetoric from Beijing and live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, it would appear from the polling that Taiwanese are taking the threats in stride.

A 2018 poll revealed nearly two-thirds of Taiwanese believe their military is not capable of preventing an invasion by China's armed forces. Only 27 percent of those polled were confident Taiwan forces could deter an invasion. The poll was conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation just days before a live-fire military exercise was held by China in the Taiwan Strait on April 18.

Despite a lack of confidence in their military, nearly 70 percent of Taiwanese would either join the army or put up resistance should China launch an attack, according to another survey conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. A lesser number (55 percent) would fight if war was instigated by a declaration of independence from Taipei.

Home field advantage

The People's Liberation Army is Getting Smaller - But Deadlier

by Michael Peck

Here's What You Need To Remember: China’s leaders have not declared conventional forces to be obsolete. But they have taken to heart the lessons of conflicts such as the First Iraq War, where smarts bombs and other high-tech weapons proved devastating against forces using Cold War technology and tactics.

Mao Zedong must be turning in his grave.

In his day, the name “People’s Liberation Army” conjured images of hordes of soldiers overwhelming their enemies with sheer numbers and Communist fervor.

Not anymore. China’s military is trading quantity for quality, foot soldiers for cyberwarriors.

“This is new data that has never appeared in the history of the People’s Liberation Army,” said a self-congratulatory article by Chinese news agency Xinhua (Google English translation here), which lauded military reforms by President Xi Jinping. “The Army’s share of the total number of troops in the military has fallen below 50 percent; the number of active duty members in non-combat units has been reduced by nearly half, and the number of officers has decreased by 30 percent.”

America, Don’t Try to Out-China China

Ali Wyne

Republicans and Democrats disagree about many foreign policy issues, but not about the perception that the United States risks losing out to China.

For the Republicans, China is an existential threat, and President Trump warned recently, about the former vice president, “China would own our country if Joe Biden got elected.”

For the Democrats, China is a challenge, but manageable. Still, Mr. Biden has pledged that as far as pandemic preparedness goes, America “will never again be at the mercy of China and other foreign countries in order to protect our own people.”

Even if this tough talk is mostly campaign-trail rhetoric, the next president of the United States should beware of casting America’s China policy in nationalistic terms.

Over the long run, Beijing’s brand of hyper-nationalism is likely to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s bid for world leadership; that posture worries too many governments.

Is China Pivoting To The Middle East?

by Paul Wolfowitz

From the beginning, the “Pivot to Asia,” announced with some fanfare in late 2011 by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, was more about politics than strategy. It provided the appearance of a strategic rationale for the American retreat from the Middle East with its “endless wars,” taking advantage of our new-found “energy independence” to focus instead on the Asia-Pacific with its growing importance for American economic and security interests.1How can a strategy that aims to protect this country’s large and growing interest in the Asian Pacific region, with both its future opportunities and potential threats, and particularly one with a focus on China, say little or nothing about China’s critical and growing dependence on the energy resources of the greater Middle East? Not to mention the even greater dependence of Japan and many of our other friends and allies in the region on that vital energy source?

Yet the Obama administration strategy called “The Pivot” did precisely that. And to a surprising extent so does the Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, despite some important departures from Obama with respect to China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Nothing Has Changed With Taiwan

By George Friedman

On Aug. 17, 1982, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz sent a memo via an American diplomat to the Taiwanese government. On Monday, just over 38 years later, the memo was declassified. Its contents were “secret” in that they were not publicly available, but the gist has been well known for some time; these points had to be part of U.S. relations with Taiwan and China because without them, U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China made no sense.

The decision to make public a document after nearly 40 years comes at a time of rising tensions, military drills and Chinese threats in the Taiwan Strait, and is meant to stave off more escalation by clarifying its position. The memo outlines the following:

That the U.S. had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan

That the U.S. had not agreed to consult with China on arms sales to Taiwan

Trump is the U.S. president that China deserves, says New York Times’ Thomas Friedman

Kevin Stankiewicz

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told CNBC on Tuesday he applauds President Donald Trump’s decision to take a harder stance on China than previous commanders in chief.

“Donald Trump is not the American president America deserves, in my opinion. But he definitely is the American president China deserved,” Friedman said on “Squawk Box.” “We needed to have a president who was going to call the game with China. And Trump has done it, with I would say more grit and toughness than any of his predecessors. I give him credit for that.” 

At the same time, Friedman said he believes the way Trump sought to confront China over international trade and other geopolitical issues would have been more constructive if he had brought along American allies from the outset. 

″[Trump] thought he could do it alone. He thought he could do it without a coalition,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist said. “Remember, it was the country that had the biggest coalition that won World War I. It was country that had the biggest coalition that won World War II. It was the country that had the healthiest coalition that won the Cold War, and it will be same with China.” 

Would a Biden administration be softer than Trump on China?

In december 2018 China hawks in the Trump administration pushed a series of punitive measures in what some referred to internally, according to a new book by Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, as “Fuck China Week”. That was as nothing compared with what happened in the month of July 2020.

In recent weeks America has imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials, including a member of the Politburo, for their part in atrocities against Uighurs in Xinjiang; added 11 Chinese companies to the Commerce Department’s blacklist, for complicity in those atrocities; declared China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea illegal; revoked Hong Kong’s special status for diplomacy and trade; announced criminal charges against four Chinese nationals who officials say were spies for the People’s Liberation Army; and ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston, supposedly a hub for espionage and influence operations, the first such move since the normalisation of relations in 1979 (China retaliated by closing America’s consulate in Chengdu). The first hint of trouble in Houston came when videos surfaced online of Chinese diplomats hurriedly burning documents in their courtyard—an apt metaphor for more than 40 years of diplomatic engagement going up in smoke.

China's expansionism enters dangerous phase

Brahma Chellaney

China's expansionist drive, from the East and South China seas to the Himalayas and the southern Pacific, is making the Indo-Pacific region more volatile and unstable. Along with the spread of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus, this has also given rise to growing anti-China sentiment.© The Hill China's expansionism enters dangerous phase

China's border aggression against India since April dovetails with a broader strategy of territorial aggrandizement that it has pursued in the period since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam. That strategy, centered on winning without fighting, has driven its bullet-less aggressions, from seizing Johnson Reef in 1988 and Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. And since launching major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea's geopolitical map without firing a shot.

However, China's aggression in the northern Indian region of Ladakh - a high-altitude territory where the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has occupied several vantage points - differs from its previous territorial grabs since the 1980s in one key aspect. China went beyond its usual practice of occupying vacant border spaces by snatching territories from right under another country's nose.

Thomas Piketty refuses to censor latest book for sale in China

Helen Davidson

The latest book by the French economist Thomas Piketty appears unlikely to be sold in mainland China after he refused requests to censor it.

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has expressed admiration for Piketty’s work, but Capital and Ideology, which was published last year, has not made it to the mainland China market due to sections on inequality in the country.

Piketty told the Guardian the Chinese publisher Citic Press had sent his French publisher a list of 10 pages of requested cuts in June from the French edition of the book, and a further list in August related to the English edition.

“I refused these conditions and told them that I would only accept a translation with no cut of any sort. They basically wanted to cut almost all parts referring to contemporary China, and in particular to inequality and opacity in China,” he said.

“Other Chinese publishers who have been in touch with my French publisher Le Seuil also said there would be cuts, so at this stage it looks as if the book will not be published in mainland China.”

Addressing Deepening Russia-China Relations

By Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Jeffrey Edmonds

The Bottom Line Russia-China cooperation increases the challenge that each country poses to the United States and, most significantly, is amplifying America’s China challenge.

The two countries are unlikely to form an official military alliance, and key differences in their objectives and asymmetry in their relations may ultimately drive them apart. In the meantime, however, and even short of an alliance, Russia and China are likely to cooperate in ways that increase the ability of each to contest U.S. military reach and key U.S. national security interests.

The gravity of these challenges means that the Department of Defense (DoD) cannot afford to dismiss or downplay what some write off as an uncomfortable or unnatural partnership. The next National Defense Strategy (NDS) must address growing Russia-China alignment, and the DoD must take steps to plan for, mitigate, and disrupt the risks that this cooperation will produce.

China Rapidly Increasing Nuclear, Naval, and Next-Gen Tech, Pentagon Warns


China is set to double its nuclear stockpile over the next decade, operates the world’s largest Navy, is surging its space capabilities, and embedding artificial intelligence across everything that it does, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual assessment on Beijing’s military power. 

In several key aspects, the Chinese and U.S. militaries are pursuing similar trends, such as expanding naval power, the movement toward a more integrated joint force, and an embrace of emerging information technologies like AI.

The Defense Department’s 2020 China Military Power report, released Tuesday, assesses that China will “at least double” its nuclear stockpile to about 400 warheads and is strengthening its nuclear deterrence. “New developments in 2019 further suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.” China is also pursuing its own version of a nuclear triad, with air-launched ballistic missiles, in addition to ICBMs. Pentagon officials assess China will have 200 intercontinental missiles in the next five years.

China is the new rich man’s playground


Few people were surprised when a bromance developed between the brainy if ponderous French economist Thomas Piketty and the powerful but plodding leader of China. Piketty produced a 700-page indictment of capitalism and concluded it was a system that made the rich richer and kept the poor in their place. Since the book trashed the American model of wealth creation, Xi Jinping eagerly plugged it. For Xi, the Frenchman’s work showed that Marxist political economics was still relevant. Chinese communists rushed out to buy the translation, if only to place the volume prominently on their shelves, and it became that rarest of creatures, a bestseller on economic theory.

Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizballah?

by Trevor Johnston

Research Questions

What is the likelihood that Iran will further invest in the Houthis and develop them as an enduring proxy group in Yemen?

Under what conditions might Iran increase its support for, and its efforts to influence, the Houthi movement?

How might the Houthis' demand for Iranian support change in the future?

How sustainable is Iranian support given dramatic changes on the ground (e.g., as Saudi posture and presence in Yemen grows)?

What organizational, ideological, or religious divisions exist within the Houthi movement, and how might these factional differences affect the trajectory of the Houthi-Iran relationship?

Russia's Su-57 Heavy Fighter Bomber: Is It Really a Fifth-Generation Aircraft?

by Ryan Michael Bauer and Peter A. Wilson

The Su-57 aircraft has been in development since 2002 and is considered a key part of Russia's arms export industry as a fifth-generation fighter to compete with rival systems such as America's F-35 aircraft. The jet made its first flight approximately ten years ago, yet the widely advertised system has not yet been incorporated into the Russian military or any foreign militaries despite Russian promises to the contrary. There have been a series of recent test flights of the aircraft, including the deployment of a handful of prototypes to Syria in 2018 and 2019. Apparently the jets did not conduct any live firing or strike missions, while the Kremlin has claimed otherwise without offering evidence. Furthermore, development challenges and recent crashes have continued to delay the advanced fighter bomber's initial operational capability (IOC) until the mid-2020s at the earliest. The head of the Sukhoi Aviation, which develops the Su-57, resigned earlier this year because of development delays, including the December 2019 crash of the first “operational” Su-57 aircraft during a test flight.

Implications of U.S. Military Approaches to General and Flag Officer Development

by Kimberly Jackson

Research Questions

What professional experiences and other characteristics do the services' G/FOs tend to share as a result of each service's approaches to personnel management and other related factors, such as service culture?

How might these characteristics and experiences influence G/FO approaches to institutional leadership and management, and the type of strategic-level advice they might provide to civilian decisionmakers?

The 2018 National Defense Strategy directed the U.S. Department of Defense to rethink how it prepares and leverages its personnel to confront emerging global security challenges, particularly with regard to education and strategic decisionmaking. To help understand whether military leadership might need to change to better serve national security objectives, the authors of this report analyzed how the military services' approaches to personnel management might influence the ways in which general and flag officers (G/FOs) in each service lead, manage, and advise.

North Korean Decisionmaking

by John V. Parachini

Research Questions

What decisions might North Korean leadership encounter when approaching economic reforms?

What military decisions might North Korean leaders face if conventional deterrence fails on the Korean Peninsula?

What considerations inform North Korean decisionmaking on nuclear weapons doctrine?

This report is a compilation of three papers designed to stimulate discussion among those who are focused on North Korean decisionmaking. The first paper describes the experiences of North Korea and three similar authoritarian regimes — China, Vietnam, and Cuba — and provides a forecast of why and how North Korea might adopt a new economic model. The second paper describes decisions that the North Korean leadership might face in two scenarios in which conventional deterrence on the Korean Peninsula breaks down. The final paper provides an assessment of North Korean leadership decisionmaking about nuclear weapons doctrine. Despite the many unknowns surrounding the North Korean leadership decisionmaking process, these papers constructively outline the parameters of the North Korean decisionmaking "trade space" and the historical examples from which North Korean leaders might draw.

The UK Invented The First Tanks. Now It May Retire Them For Good

Sebastien Roblin

Over a century ago, as trench warfare imposed a seemingly perpetual blood-soaked stalemate in World War I, a commission in the United Kingdom made military history. It adapted technology from ‘Creeping Grip” treaded tractors imported from Chicago into armored war machines that could negotiate mud-soaked battlefields and trenches, seemingly impervious to bullets and shrapnel, and blast enemies with their own sponson-mounted cannons and machine guns.

These breakdown-prone, rhombus-shaped “land ships” are considered to be the world’s first tanks.

Today, the UK may make history again as an integrated review of defense and foreign policy mulls retiring the British Army’s fleet of Challenger 2 main battle tanks in favor of more funding for satellites and cyber-warfare. That could make the UK potentially the first major military power to give up on the main battle tank entirely.

The fate of the British Army’s armored fighting vehicles is linked to fundamental questions as to what role the UK should play in NATO and future military coalitions.

Insider Threat at Twitter Is a Risk to Everyone

by Douglas Yeung and Ryan Andrew Brown
Three young hackers were charged July 31 in the hijacking of dozens of high-profile Twitter accounts, including those belonging to presidential candidate Joe Biden, former President Obama, and other public figures. The fake tweets briefly promoted a Bitcoin scam that nabbed over $100,000. But the hackers' tactics point out how vulnerabilities at such tech platforms can now also pose a risk to national security in the United States and elsewhere.

Elected officials currently announce policies and spar with one another on Twitter. An unauthorized individual appearing to tweet from a world leader's account could crash markets, spark conflicts, or create other catastrophic global consequences. Hacking the accounts of media companies could create similarly far-reaching effects. A well-respected news outlet tweeting out “breaking news” of impending war, or a local journalist warning of an active shooter on the loose could generate chaos.

As seen in other security breaches—the Sony email hack or WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables, for example—the release of private communications can also be very damaging. Social media hacks have that component as well. News reports suggest that personal data, including private messages, was stolen from some of these prominent individuals' Twitter accounts.

Brain-Computer Interfaces Are Coming. Will We Be Ready?

Humans controlling machines with their minds may sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but it’s becoming a reality through brain-computer interfaces. Understanding this emerging technology now can help ensure that effective policies are in place before BCI becomes a part of everyday life.

Three drones lift off, filling the air with their telltale buzz. They slowly sail upward as a fleet—evenly spaced and level—and then hover aloft.

On the ground, the pilot isn't holding a remote control. In fact, he isn't holding anything. He's just sitting there calmly, controlling the drones with his mind.

This isn't science fiction. This is a YouTube video from 2016.

In the clip, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University (ASU) sports an odd piece of headwear. It looks a bit like a swim cap, but with nearly 130 colorful sensors that detect the student's brain waves. These devices let him move the drones simply by thinking directional commands: up, down, left, right.

Building the Grand Strategy for Cybersecurity

By Shaun Waterman

The Cyber Solarium Commission, a congressionally chartered panel of expert policymakers, was created to tackle cyber conflict in the same way its Truman-era predecessor addressed the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. An article in SIGNAL Magazine’s August issue (“Leaders Seek a Grand Strategy for Cybersecurity") explored the commission’s theory of deterrence by denial and how it embraced the concept of resilience.

The Cyber Solarium Commission’s March 2020 report put a blue ribbon around a package of grand strategic concepts for cyber conflict that U.S. military leaders had adopted two years earlier. The commission, despite some public debate among its staff members, endorsed the strategy of defending forward through persistent engagement.

Laid out in the U.S. Cyber Command 2018 Command Vision statement, this strategy is based on the theory that the very nature of the battlespace in cyber conflict—the global information networks over which it is fought—fundamentally changes the way conflict unfolds and the dynamic of state-to-state military confrontation.