The Cable

SitRep: China’s Latest Island Adventure; White House Rejects Mattis Deputy; McMaster Overruled at NSC

Tillerson Lands in Tokyo; U.S. Trains on ISIS Drones; Russia Building Spree; And Lots More

This aerial photo taken on January 2, 2017 shows a Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea.
The aircraft carrier is one of the latest steps in the years-long build-up of China's military, as Beijing seeks greater global power to match its economic might and asserts itself more aggressively in its own backyard.
 / AFP / STR / China OUT        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This aerial photo taken on January 2, 2017 shows a Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea. The aircraft carrier is one of the latest steps in the years-long build-up of China's military, as Beijing seeks greater global power to match its economic might and asserts itself more aggressively in its own backyard. / AFP / STR / China OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Beijing does Beijing. As the world watches Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara maneuver for position in Syria and the Middle East, on the other side of the globe, Beijing is keeping at it.

The years-long project of building airstrips, airplane shelters, and military installations on an archipelago of man-made islands in the South China Sea continues apace, as new satellite imagery of North Island in the disputed Paracel Islands shows signs of construction activity and what appears to be the beginning of a harbor. In the past, China has installed military equipment on other islands in the Paracels, including air defense missiles and fighter jets.

Words, words, words. The work continues despite harsh rhetoric from the Trump administration. In an interview with the New York Times last year, then-candidate Trump complained about Beijing’s efforts, saying they’re building “military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen…They do that, and they do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”

The photos also come to light as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lands in Tokyo on a critical swing that will also take him to Beijing and Seoul on a trip expected to be dominated by talk of North Korea. During his confirmation hearing in January, Tillerson warned that Washington needs to tell Beijing that “the island-building stops,” and “your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” Neither the State Department, Defense Department, or the White House has commented on the latest moves by Beijing in the South China Sea.

The secretive Tillerson has broken with tradition by refusing to allow reporters to accompany him on the trip, bringing only a writer from the conservative website, the Independent Journal Review, along. He has yet to speak with the press.

Sea Drills. But things are moving. On Tuesday, warships from the United States, Japan, and South Korea began two days of drills to improve reaction times to counter ballistic missile threats.

“The drills,” writes FP’s Robbie Gramer, “come hard on the heels of last week’s North Korean missile launch into the Sea of Japan. They also follow the deployment last week of the first parts of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system to South Korea.

Together, the deployments and the drills have raised temperatures in the region, prompting harsh language from Beijing and Pyongyang and promising to make Tillerson’s Asian tour particularly interesting.”

Taiwan in the game. A new strategy document to be issued by the Taiwanese government later this week also underscores the uncertainty in the region, stating, “the recent activity of Chinese jets and ships around Taiwan shows the continued rise in (China’s) military threat capabilities,” while highlighting the importance of Taiwan’s need to defend itself. “In addition to posing a military threat to our country, it also has a negative impact on regional stability.”

Empty desks. Over at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has withdrawn his pick of former ambassador Anne Patterson to be his undersecretary for policy after the White House, and several Republican senators, refused to back the choice. Two months into the Trump administration, Mattis — like Tillerson at State — remains unable to put together his own team at the Pentagon, due to White House refusals to consider the names he has put forth.

Mattis “is not happy” over the White House’s stonewalling of his staff picks, one person with knowledge of the deliberations recently told FP. The Patterson dustup comes just after Mattis’ desire to appoint Mary Beth Long in the policy job was rejected by the White House, which reportedly wants to install Mira Ricardel, who has been running the Pentagon transition team, in the position.

Fat Leonard. In another crushing blow to the U.S. Navy in the never-ending “Fat Leonard” scandal, the Justice Department on Tuesday uncorked a new round of indictments against eight Navy officials — including an admiral — charging them with corruption and other crimes.

Among those charged were Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless, a recently retired Navy intelligence officer, along with four retired Navy captains and a retired Marine colonel. “The Navy personnel are accused of taking bribes in the form of lavish gifts, prostitutes and luxury hotel stays courtesy of Leonard Glenn “Fat Leonard” Francis, a Singapore-based defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to defrauding the Navy of tens of millions of dollars,” the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock reports.

And whoa. During a port visit by the USS Blue Ridge to Manila in May 2008, five of those officers attended a “raging multi-day party, with a rotating carousel of prostitutes,” the indictment states. The group drained drank their hotel’s entire supply of Dom Pérignon champagne and piled up $50k in expenses, all of which were covered by Francis. More from the WaPo: “On another port visit by the Blue Ridge to Manila in February 2007, Francis allegedly hosted a sex party for officers in the MacArthur Suite of the Manila hotel. During the party, ‘historical memorabilia related to General Douglas MacArthur were used by the participants in sexual acts,’ according to the indictment.”

Marine scandal. The indictments came the same day the leadership from the Marine Corps were skewered by the Senate Armed Services Committee for the unfolding scandal over Marines posting naked photos of female service members on a Facebook page, while writing misogynistic comments promoting sexual assault.

Marine Commandant, Gen. Robert B. Neller, told senators he intended to fix the misogynistic culture of his service. “What is it going to take for you to accept these Marines as Marines?” Neller asked of the male Marines watching his testimony, while imploring the female Marines to “trust the leadership to correct this problem.”

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Personnel

When Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster agreed to take the job of national security advisor in the Trump administration following the firing of Michael Flynn, many wondered whether he’d have full control over National Security Council (NSC) staffing decisions. A new report from Politico appears to answer that question. The news outlet reports that McMaster tried to transfer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a 30 year-old picked by Flynn to be the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs, but whom the CIA was leery of. Cohen-Watnick reportedly went around McMaster and sought the intervention of White House political advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Bannon and Kushner brought the issue to Trump and Trump ruled in Cohen-Watnick’s favor, allowing him to remain as senior director.

Indictments

The Department of Justice is going to announcement indictments of an unknown number of Russian hackers on Wednesday for breaking into Yahoo and breaching data on millions of accounts, a tipster tells CNN. It’s still unclear which massive breach of Yahoo’s data the department’s indictment will cover — the 2013 hack which compromised nearly a billion accounts or the 2014 hack which Yahoo claimed had the backing of an unnamed state. Nor is it clear whether the Justice Department believes the hackers to be indicted were acting with the support or knowledge of the Russian government.

Drone killing

The Army’s experience with the Islamic State’s grenade-dropping drones in Mosul is helping the service write its playbook on drone killing. Defense News reports that the Army has started to integrate its observations of how the Islamic State uses drones — and how to counter them — into training exercises. Officials from both the Army’s Combined Arms Center and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command have deployed to Mosul to report back on the threat, and the Army has begun using a drone dubbed “the Outlaw” to act as an Islamic State stand-in drone during exercises back at home.

Air defense drama

First Turkey annoyed its fellow NATO members by suggesting it would buy an air defense missile from China. Now, after that deal fell through, Turkey’s choice of western adversary missile defense systems has changed but the alliance’s annoyance will likely remain the same. Russian news agency Tass reports that Turkey is now looking to get a loan from Russia in order to buy its S-400 Triumf air defense missile system. Rostec chief Sergey Chemezov said that the issue is now with Russia’s Finance Ministry on whether or not to issue the loan but that contracts can be signed and deliveries can get underway shortly afterward.

Upgrades

Russia is making itself at home at its naval base in Tartous, Syria, expanding the facility in order to make it capable of accommodating more ships. USNI News reports that Russia’s defense committee chief Viktor Ozerov says Moscow’s five-year effort to upgrade the facility will kick off in the spring. Once the work is finished, the base at Tartous will be able to house up to 11 ships.

Accessions

The military of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia will soon become effectively a part of the Russian military thanks to orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports that Putin has ordered the Russian government to integrate the troops into Russia’s armed forces, aligning regulations and force structure and allowing South Ossetian troops to transfer to the Russian military. Georgia, which still considers South Ossetia as part of its territory, is opposed to the move, calling the agreement “illegitimate.”  

 

Photo Credit STR/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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