The Cable

Situation Report: Flirting with Chinese spies; Think twice before coming for the Kims; Syria holds up chemical weapons inquiry; U.S. seaport security suffers; and a bit more.

By David Francis, Adam Rawnsley, and FP Staff Playing hard to get with Chinese spies…for a whole year. When he received a mysterious email from a spurious Chinese consulting firm, freelance journalist Nate Thayer saw an opportunity. “Mr. Thayer, as a renowned correspondent on Asian affairs, we wonder if you happen to have a professional ...

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By David Francis, Adam Rawnsley, and FP Staff

Playing hard to get with Chinese spies…for a whole year. When he received a mysterious email from a spurious Chinese consulting firm, freelance journalist Nate Thayer saw an opportunity. “Mr. Thayer, as a renowned correspondent on Asian affairs, we wonder if you happen to have a professional network of experts from the strategic circle and government on Asian affairs,” went one email. “It would be wonderful if you have such a network and use it to provide us with insightful consultations. Hope it turns out we are a good fit.”

As Thayer wrote in a recent blog post, they offered him between $500 and $1500 to write “investigative reports” about the Kyaukpyu Port project in Burma, among other assignments. Thayer reached out to U.S. intelligence experts and soon determined that he was dealing with Chinese Ministry of State Security agents. In other words, Chinese spooks.

Over the next year, Thayer strung them along in a long chain of emails to learn as much about Chinese spy recruiting techniques as he could, without accepting cash or providing them with any intelligence.

What was Thayer’s biggest takeaway from all this?

“It’s a common thing,” Thayer told FP’s Situation Report. “These guys weren’t representing themselves as agents of the ministry of state security, so how many people fall for this stuff, not even knowing who they are working for?” — FP’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

When you come at the Kims.. North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction progress has ratchet up the chatter about decapitation strikes on Kim Jong-un. But killing a Kim is a lot harder than Adam Rawnsley walks through the history of failed attempts against the scions of the Kim dynasty and finds that the dicey enterprise of assassination likely won’t solve the world’s North Korea problems, even in the event they succeed.

Syria hold up chemical weapons investigation. FP’s Colum Lynch with an exclusive: “Syria is preventing a U.N. chemical weapons inspector from traveling to Damascus to begin the work of determining who carried out a deadly April 4 sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.” More here.

Can it get any worse? We’ll see Friday, when U.S. President Donald Trump meets with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. FP’s Jenna McLaughlin and Emily Tamkin: “After almost six months in office, [Trump’s] administration is mired in a growing investigation into its possible collusion with the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election, and, ironically, U.S.-Russia relations are at an all-time low.” More here.

One border sacrificed for much bigger ones. Trump has pledged to build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border. He’s doing so at the expense of security the nation’s 361 ports dotted across America’s 95,000 miles of coastline. FP’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: The proposed cuts, leaving just $48 million in grant funding, have alarmed port operators, senators from both sides of the aisle, and counterterrorism experts alike.” More here.

Welcome to Friday’s Situation Report. Your regular presenter, Paul McLeary, is out for a few days, but will be back Monday. You can reach him at or either he or Adam on Twitter @paulmcleary and @arawnsley.

Caps. The Trump White House is quietly taking back some of the authority it delegated to the  Pentagon over the size of troop increases in Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reports that a classified memo from national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster caps the number of troops Defense Secretary James Mattis can send at 3,900. Increases beyond that number require White House approval, according to the memo.

Building blocks. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has floated the possibility of a U.S.-Russian partnership against the Islamic State and The Daily Beast has some details of the emerging proposal. Sources tell the Beast that Tillerson wants to build on existing deconfliction efforts with Russia, hoping that coordination Russia and Syria on the war against the Islamic State through no-fly zones and cease-fires could serve a confidence-building measure for moving onto a broader political settlement once the terrorist group is defeated.

Trump stumbles into pipeline politics. The U.S. president waded into European energy security. It did not go well. FP’s Noah Buyon and Robbie Gramer: “Before reveling in a new clash of civilizations in his Warsaw speech Thursday, President Donald Trump cannonballed into energy geopolitics, committing the U.S. to combatting Russian energy bullying — at the possible expense of European unity.” There are a whole lot of contradictions in this. More here.

Everybody chill. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is trying to lower the temperature on the Trump administration’s rhetoric after North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Mattis told reporters he “[doesn’t] believe this capability in itself brings us closer to war,” saying that “diplomacy has not failed” on North Korea. Mattis’s comments mark a sharp departure from the harder line put out by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley earlier this week. Haley warned that Security Council that the North’s launch was “closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution” and that the U.S. was prepared to use its “considerable military forces” absent a strong diplomatic response from the United Nations.

Round 2. Qatar has rebuffed its neighbors’ list of demands for a change in foreign policy and now Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain are promising to increase the pressure with more diplomatic and economic measures against Doha. The quartet didn’t specify what measures they’d take but experts tell the AP that their options are limited and unlikely to go for the jugular by pulling their money out of banks in Qatar or cutting off its natural gas supplies.  

Ban the bomb. The U.N. is about to ban nuclear weapons, not that it’s going to do much of anything. Around 141 countries, none of whom possess nuclear arsenals, are set to agree to a treaty outlawing their possession. At the moment, it’s unclear how a treaty agreed to by non-nuclear states and boycotted by the nine nuclear powers would lead to the eradication of nuclear weapons, but supporters say it could help create a norm against the ownership of nuclear arsenals.

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