The Cable

SitRep: China Warns U.S. on South China Sea; Russian Military Buildup Kicks Off

Fat Leonard Claims More Victims North Korea Fail; Syria Fighting Pushing Toward Raqqa, And Lots More

ZHOUSHAN, CHINA - APRIL 03:  (CHINA OUT) Soldiers of Chinese navy stand in line on the ship before they go to the Somalia Waters on April 3, 2015 in Zhoushan, China. The 20th Chinese Navy convoy fleet, made up of three ships, is scheduled to set sail for the Gulf of Aden near Somalia to rendezvous with the current anti-piracy fleet today.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
ZHOUSHAN, CHINA - APRIL 03: (CHINA OUT) Soldiers of Chinese navy stand in line on the ship before they go to the Somalia Waters on April 3, 2015 in Zhoushan, China. The 20th Chinese Navy convoy fleet, made up of three ships, is scheduled to set sail for the Gulf of Aden near Somalia to rendezvous with the current anti-piracy fleet today. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

 

Under Pressure. Tension between Washington and Beijing continues to build in the South China Sea, with officials in Beijing saying Tuesday they’ll increase pressure on the United States to curb its “militarization” of the critical waterway.

When the two sides sit down next week for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, “Beijing will pressure Washington over maritime issues…as the United States’ increasing military presence in the South China Sea is among China’s major concerns,” a Chinese official told the official China Daily. China has long claimed most of the South China Sea as its own, and embarked on an ambitious island-building program on a series of reefs also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

Rhetoric, and action. May was a busy month in the increasingly tense standoff between Washington and Beijing. Earlier this month, Chinese fighter planes buzzed an American surveillance plane in the South China Sea in what the Pentagon said was an “unsafe” intercept. Prior to that incident, the U.S. Navy’s USS William P. Lawrence passed near Fiery Cross Reef, angering Beijing. China’s Defense Ministry responded by saying it was deploying more military hardware to the disputed islands in the waterway. In a statement, the ministry said, “the provocative actions by American military ships and planes lay bare the U.S. designs to seek gain by creating chaos in the region and again testify to the total correctness and utter necessity of China’s construction of defensive facilities on relevant islands.”

Fat Leonard. The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet is at the tip of the spear when it comes to safeguarding American interests in the Pacific. But the fleet’s leadership has also been roiled by a years-long investigation into a bribery and corruption scandal the likes of which the U.S. military has never seen. The issue revolves around tens of millions of dollars in Navy sustainment contracts shoveled to Singapore-based businessman Leonard Glenn Francis, (“Fat Leonard”) in return for lavish dinners, expensive gifts, prostitutes, travel, and other bribes to U.S. Navy officers and civilian staffers.

As many as 200 people remain under investigation, and 13 have already been charged, including three announced on Friday: (ret.) Capt. Michael Brooks, Cmdr. Bobby Pitts, and Lt. Cmdr. Gentry Debord.

The scope of the scandal is staggering. In the Washington Post, Craig Whitlock delivers the latest update on the saga, reporting that in December, Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, told a meeting of about 200 of his admirals that “30 of them were under criminal investigation by the Justice Department or ethical scrutiny by the Navy for their connections to Francis, according to two senior Navy officials with direct knowledge of the meeting.” Buckle up.

Incoming. Defense Secretary Ash Carter leaves for Asia Tuesday, where he’ll lead the U.S. delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual strategy meeting in Singapore. Warming up for the trip, Carter told U.S. Naval Academy graduates on Friday that China is building “a Great Wall of self-isolation” in the South China Sea.

Thanks for clicking on through as we kick off the summer 2016 edition 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

North Korea

North Korea carried out a test of its Musudan road-mobile intermediate range ballistic missile late Monday. The test was was a failure, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and may have exploded immediately on launch. That would make this the fourth consecutive failed test for the Musudan. Pyongyang most recently attempted two Musudan launches in late April ahead of the Korean Workers’ Party Congress.

Russia

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin says his country will spend $25 billion on its defense industry over the next four years, focused primarily on personnel, scientific research, and substituting NATO gear currently off-limits due to sanctions against Russia. Rogozin made the remarks at a meeting alongside Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who said modernization of Russia’s defense industry is crucial for maintaining the country’s arms export competitiveness.

Starting next year, Russia’s one and only aircraft carrier will head to port to undergo a major modernization effort that will take the ship offline for months, according to the TASS news agency. The ship is currently training with elements of a new air wing that will ditch the Su-25, but include the Sukhoi Su-33 and MiG-29K fighters, along with Kamov Ka-27, Ka-31 and Ka-52K helicopters. Russian officials expect the carrier to head to the eastern Mediterranean this fall.

Syria

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are pushing farther into Raqqa province towards the town of Tabqa, which the Islamic State took in 2014, according to Reuters. The town is just 40 miles from the jihadist group’s capital in the city of Raqqa. The capture of Tabqa would cut off the Islamic State capital’s links with Aleppo

The Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, has grown stronger since the cessation of hostilities between the Assad regime and a coalition of rebel groups was signed. The agreement excluded the Nusra Front, allowing Syrian, Russian, and Iranian attacks against it to continue, but the group has since expanded its territory and recruited at least 3,000 new fighters, according to the AP. The group, however, is currently split between two factions — one which wants to proclaim an Islamic caliphate along the lines of the Islamic State and another which wants to disassociate itself from al-Qaeda and devote its efforts exclusively to toppling the Assad regime.

Israel

Israel has a new defense minister, but he’s not very popular among the Israeli military’s top officers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Avigdor Lieberman, a hardline conservative, after the resignation of the former defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon. Israeli generals are reportedly worried that Lieberman could provoke further tension with the Palestinians and undo some of their work in establishing a relative peace after a recent flareup of violence.

Afghanistan

The fighting season is underway in Afghanistan and the Taliban have carried out a series of attacks in Helmand province that killed at least 25 policemen, the New York Times reports. The attacks took place on police checkpoints in the province. Local officials say corruption is a big factor in the resumption of violence in Helmand, where a renewed focus by U.S. and Afghan security forces was thought to have calmed things. Taliban forces are reporting setting their sights on the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

Navy

U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Kristian Saucier has pleaded guilty to taking pictures of classified areas on board a nuclear submarine, the Hill reports. An investigation into the Navy officer began when his phone, containing pictures of the USS Alexandria‘s propulsion system and nuclear reactor, was found in the trash. The maximum penalty for the charges Saucier copped to include a 10-year prison sentence and a quarter million dollars in fines.

 

Photo Credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

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