The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Navy Buzzes Fake Chinese Island, Washington Readies Arms Sales to Vietnam

  Sailing on. The guided missile destroyer the USS William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef on Tuesday, in another of a handful of recent freedom of navigation exercises meant to symbolically challenge Chinese claims to small, artificial islands in the South China Sea. Beijing built the 700-acre artificial ...

AAALawrence

 

Sailing on. The guided missile destroyer the USS William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef on Tuesday, in another of a handful of recent freedom of navigation exercises meant to symbolically challenge Chinese claims to small, artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Beijing built the 700-acre artificial island, along with a 10,000-ft. runway, over the past year. That runway recently landed a Chinese warplane sent to pick up sick workers and bring them to the mainland, and the op comes just after a visit by Gen. Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, who became the most senior Chinese officer to visit one of China’s artificial islands. China also recently dispatched a popular military folk singer to entertain troops stationed on the island, for what it’s worth.

Not the first, not the last. In January, the Pentagon dispatched the USS Curtis Wilbur to cruise within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands, and back in October, the USS Lassen did the same to several contested rocks in the Spratlys.

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban said in a statement that the operation “challenged attempts by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim, specifically that these three claimants purport to require prior permission or notification of transits through the territorial sea, contrary to international law.”

Word coming. By this summer, an international tribunal in The Hague is expected to rule for the first time on the validity of China’s territorial claims as it tries to fence off nearly the entire South China Sea for itself. FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson took a hard look at the issues earlier this year, noting the deployment of long-range, surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island has only underscored the importance of the pending court decision. Experts believe the tribunal likely will rule in favor of the Philippines, which brought the suit against Beijing, but no one is sure who will actually enforce it, or how.

Making friends, selling guns. The most recent passby by the Lawrence comes just before President Barack Obama is slated to land in Vietnam, where he’s expected to lift a ban on arms sales to the communist country. But human rights groups and some members of Congress are unhappy with the possibility, FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson tell us. And China isn’t too pleased, either, as it wages a series of highly-volatile disputes with Hanoi over islands in the South China Sea.

It’s complicated. “The step would carry crucial symbolism in the growing contest for influence between China and the United States in the Western Pacific,” FP’s  duo writes. Yet the country’s human rights record is abysmal, and State Department officials have been pressing the country to free some political prisoners by time Obama touches down.

FP Podcast. Looking for something unrelated to the South China Sea? Need something to listen to on your morning commute? Check out the latest podcast from FP, looking at the security and political mess that is Syria and Iraq. From the teaser: “as the death rate continues to climb, so too is America’s fatigue for continued or extended engagement. Will the next president stay the course in Iraq and Syria? What does it mean for U.S. leadership if not?

The crew: Lara Jakes, deputy managing editor for news at FP; Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya and correspondent for An-nahar; Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution; and David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of the FP Group.

Thanks for clicking on through as we rip through another week of SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

China

The Center for Strategic and International Studies ChinaPower site takes a look at China’s Jin­-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines and finds them wanting on a number of fronts. The sub’s missile payload, the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, is lacking in range, meaning that Jin subs have to make it relatively close to their targets in order to carry out successful strikes. That’s especially tricky as U.S. anti-submarine warfare kits can reportedly find — and potentially help destroy — Jin-class subs underwater.

North Korea

North Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests are starting to make observers nervous, the Los Angeles times reports. The tests appear to indicate progress on a number of technological fronts. The North’s submarine-launched ballistic missile now has a functioning solid fuel motor, inching the missile closer to a multi-stage capability. Statements by South Korean and U.S. military officials suggest that North Korea may also be able to mount a nuclear warhead atop their ballistic missiles, allowing them a longer-range nuclear strike capability. The North’s road-mobile Musudan missile has had less success with three failed tests in a month.

On top of the nukes, North Korea appears to have a zombie general, the New York Times reports. General Ri Yong-gil, Chief of General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, was reportedly executed for corruption according to South Korean officials. But Gen. Ri appears to live again, albeit minus a bit of rank according to a photograph and an announcement at North Korea’s recent Workers Party congress. An apparently recent picture of then general sporting three stars instead of his previous four appear to buttress a theory that he was demoted rather than executed.

Russia

Monday was Victory Day in Russia, the commemoration of the Red Army’s trouncing Nazi Germany in World War II, and the parade was an opportunity for Moscow to show off its latest and greatest weapons — many of which are currently in use in Syria. Among the weapons on display was Russia’s S-400 air defense missile system, which Russia says it deployed to its base in Latakia after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet. Moscow’s most advanced new tank, the T-14 Armata, also went for a spin during the parade. Unlike last year’s Victory Day parade, however, the Armata managed to make it through this year’s festivities without breaking down.

Islamic State

The Pentagon says it has killed the notorious (and sometimes lampooned) Islamic State commander Abu Waheeb. For real this time. Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook says an airstrike took out Abu Waheeb, the jihadist group’s military emir for Anbar Province, in Rutba, Iraq. Abu Waheeb’s jihadist career stretches back to the days when the Islamic State was an al Qaeda affiliate. His death has been reported on numerous occasions before but Pentagon officials seem to believe that this one will stick.

al Qaeda

Osama Bin Laden’s son, Hamza, has issued an audiotape just a day after al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a recording of his own. Hamza, whose had a statement published by al Qaeda before, largely echoed Zawahiri’s recent talking points, calling on jihadist groups in Syria to show unity. The bin Laden scion also painted the Syrian war as a step on the road to jihadist conquest of Jerusalem.

One if by land

One of our favorite rhetorical devices is when a service chief takes a stab at humility by insisting he doesn’t know where the next war will be, or how it will be fought — but then proceeds to explain exactly how it’ll all go down.

Speaking at a dinner event earlier this month, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said when mapping out the next war, “inevitably we’ll guess wrong,” but — but — “I think there’s some things we can say about what that next fight’s going to be. I think it’s going to be based on a maritime campaign: we’re going to fight with the Navy, we’re going to come from the sea, we’re going to seize some sort of naval base or maybe forward operating base. We may have to defend it against an enemy maritime threat.”

He continued, “I think our enemy is going to be different, I think it’s going to be a near-peer enemy. The enemy’s going to be networked, they’re going to jam our comms.” That’s pretty specific. Not that his assumptions are wrong, but the next war sounds pretty well tailored for how the Marine Corps views its role in America’s wars.

Army

The U.S. Army is now at its smallest since World War II, Army Times reports. At the end of March, the service had an end strength of 479,172, losing nearly 17,000 troops or approximately three brigades. The number will continue to decline towards the Army’s planned end strength of 450,000 in 2018, the result of budget cuts caused by sequestration.

Space (arms) race

The Washington Post reports that the Defense Department thinking more about space and the need protect its assets there. China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile was a wake-up call for the Pentagon but subsequent interest in space weapons among China and Russia as well as the growth of GPS jamming capabilities have only added to the sense of urgency. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work began making space issues a priority in 2014. Since then, the Department has opened a new Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center and given the Secretary of the Air Force the new responsibility of being principal space adviser.

And finally…

When life gives you sanctions, make cargo shorts. The Kalashnikov Concern, the company behind the iconic Russian Kalashnikov assault rifle, has been hit hard by U.S. and European sanctions. With 70 percent of its weapons sales taking place in the now off-limits West, the BBC reports that the company is planning to refocus on the Russian market by launching a casual clothing line.

 

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy

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

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