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Security Brief: SECDEF’s China Trip Cancelled Amid Rising Tensions; Payday for Boeing

Catch up on everything you need to know about growing tensions between the United States and China, the Pentagon’s mad rush to award major defense contracts before the end of the fiscal year, the F-35 fighter jet’s first crash, and more.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe inspect an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing on June 27, 2018. MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe inspect an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing on June 27, 2018. MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe inspect an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing on June 27, 2018. MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions between China and the United States are escalating on multiple fronts, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ planned trip to Beijing cancelled days after President Donald Trump accused China of meddling in U.S. politics. Closing out the fiscal year, Boeing capped off a hat trick with three new Pentagon contracts, including an almost $10 billion deal for hundreds of new U.S. Air Force trainer jets. Meanwhile, Macedonia’s vote on changing its name to pave the way for the country’s accession to NATO has fallen far short of the turnout require, India quietly sealed a deal with Russia to buy the controversial S-400 missile system, and more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Don’t look now. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will no longer attend security talks in Beijing this month after China declined to make his counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, available for the meeting.

Tensions between China and the United States are escalating on multiple fronts, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ planned trip to Beijing cancelled days after President Donald Trump accused China of meddling in U.S. politics. Closing out the fiscal year, Boeing capped off a hat trick with three new Pentagon contracts, including an almost $10 billion deal for hundreds of new U.S. Air Force trainer jets. Meanwhile, Macedonia’s vote on changing its name to pave the way for the country’s accession to NATO has fallen far short of the turnout require, India quietly sealed a deal with Russia to buy the controversial S-400 missile system, and more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Don’t look now. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will no longer attend security talks in Beijing this month after China declined to make his counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, available for the meeting.

The cancellation represents the latest sign of rising tensions between the two nations, capping off a week of mounting friction that has seen Washington accuse Beijing of election meddling, the imposition of fresh sanctions, a growing trade war, and a challenge by the U.S. Navy to Chinese control of a disputed island.

Speaking in the Security Council, Trump accused China of “attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration.”

“They do not want me, or us, to win because I am the first President ever to challenge China on trade,” Trump said.

Days later, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer patrolled near at least two Chinese-held outposts in the disputed Spratly island chain in the South China Sea, challenging Beijing’s maritime claims.

The latest news comes against the backdrop of an escalating trade war and last month’s decision to exercise a controversial sanctions law against a Chinese company for purchasing Russian-made defense equipment

Beijing quickly hit back, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi decrying protectionism and unilateral trade moves that “bring damage to all” and declaring that China “will not be blackmailed or yield to pressure” during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

The Trump administration has not released details to back up the president’s claims about Chinese election interference, but administration officials say Vice President Mike Pence will deliver remarks this week on the issue and will reveal additional details about Chinese activity.

The Trump administration’s ire appears to be focused on retaliatory Chinese tariffs focusing on farming districts, especially in Iowa, that represent key political constituencies for Trump. Such retaliation is a far cry from the kind of covert Russian activity observed in 2016 and represents a standard feature of trade politics.

Administration officials are hinting that the U.S. government has additional evidence that it plans to make public. “China is trying to exploit what they think are divisions between the administration, state and local governments, and the U.S. business community, on our policies, which are targeting China for their decades of bad behavior,” a National Security Council spokesman told FP.

Mad rush. The last week of the fiscal year always means a pick-up in defense contracts as the Pentagon rushes to empty its coffers. But this year was more dramatic than most.

Just weeks after winning a major U.S. Navy contract to build the next-generation MQ-25 carrier-based tanker, Boeing snagged two additional Pentagon deals, including the largest U.S. Air Force aircraft program for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin announced a deal with the Pentagon for the latest batch of F-35s, bringing the unit price of an F-35A below $90 million for the first time.

And Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, won a multi-million dollar contract to supply rocket engines for a next-generation rocket being built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed.

Here is a look at some of the major defense contracts finalized this week:

  • Sept. 24: Boeing and partner Italy’s Leonardo edged out two competitors – Lockheed Martin Sikorsky and Sierra Nevada Corps – for  a contract worth up to $2.38 billion for the Air Force’s UH-1N replacement helicopter, which will guard the nuclear missile fields and transport VIPs. The MH-139 helicopters will be built at Leonardo’s commercial AW-139 production plant in Philadelphia.
  • Sept. 27: Boeing and partner Sweden’s Saab again beat out two competitors – Lockheed and Leonardo – to win an up to $9.2 billion to build a fleet of 351 next-generation T-X fighter/bomber trainers for the Air Force
  • Sept. 28: ULA selected Blue Origin to power the booster for its next-generation, all-American Vulcan Centaur rocket. Aerojet Rocketdyne was also in the running.
  • Sept. 28: The Pentagon and Lockheed announced that they had finalized an $11.5 billion contract for the 11th batch of F-35s. The deal comprises 141 new jets and follows a handshake deal between the two parties, announced in July. The deal pushes the cost of the F-35A conventional variant to $89.2 million per unit, a 5.4 percent reduction over the last contract.
  • Sept. 28: The Navy tapped two shipbuilding companies, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Bath Iron Works, to build ten of its Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, awarding the firms contracts worth about $9 billion altogether.

Failure to launch. Macedonia’s vote on changing its name to resolve a decades-old dispute with Greece has fallen far short of the turnout required, amid rumors of Russian interference. But Macedonia’s prime minister declared on Sunday that he saw a clear mandate for the name change anyway, as 90% of those who did take part voted in favor. The name change would pave the way for Greece to to end its veto on Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU.

He said what? President Donald Trump said on Saturday that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “fell in love” thanks to an exchange of “beautiful letters.”

“I was really tough and so was he, and we went back and forth,” Trump said during a rally in West Virginia. “And then we fell in love, OK? No, really, he wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”

In remarks before the U.N. General Assembly, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said his country would never give up its nuclear weapons without trust-building measures from the United States.

Allegations of fraud. The two major political parties in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region are crying fraud after Sunday’s parliamentary election, with one saying it will refuse to accept the results, VOA reports. The allegations will unsettle Kurds who hoped the poll would end turbulence and deliver stability.

‘Wake up! You’re not going to die today.’ Ronald J. Shurer II is set to receive the Medal of Honor in a ceremony Oct. 1, for “conspicuous gallantry” for actions he took on April 6, 2008, while serving as a senior medical sergeant in Afghanistan’s remote Nuristan province. Shurer recounted his memories of that day alongside three of his comrades who served with him in the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) in interviews over the weekend.

Syria calculus. Trump has backed a plan to maintain a presence in Syria as long as Iranian troops are there, but that does not necessarily mean U.S. military boots on the ground, according to James Jeffrey, the president’s special envoy to the war-torn country. Arab allies and local proxy forces backed by U.S. air power could replace the roughly 2,000 American troops deployed there now, Jeffrey told reporters in New York over the weekend.

This option is likely more appealing to Syria. The country’s foreign minister demanded on Saturday that “occupation” forces from the U.S., France and Turkey leave immediately, declaring that victory over “terrorism” is almost at hand.

Crisis averted? A pro-Turkey rebel group, Failaq al-Sham, on Sunday reportedly began withdrawing from parts of northern Syria under a deal brokered by Ankara and Moscow to avert a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive on what is the country’s last major opposition stronghold, in Idlib province, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.But on Sunday night, a leader of the group told Reuters that the report was false.

Security risk. The U.S. State Department has decided to close its consulate in Basra, Iraq, and evacuate the diplomats stationed there following mounting, credible threats from Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. The U.S. post in the southern Iraqi city is one of three U.S. diplomatic missions in the country. On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pushed back, denying that his country was responsible for the threats.

A miracle on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon is set to start fiscal year 2019 with an on-time defense spending bill for the first time in decades, after Trump signed into law $674 billion to fund the military and avert a government shutdown on Friday. Members of Congress lauded the bill, which reflects a $19.8 billion increase from last year’s levels, funds an active-duty personnel pay raise of 2.6 percent.

From Russia with love. India has quietly approved a $5.43 billion program to buy five S-400 Triumf missile systems from Russia, just a week before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the country Oct. 5, reports Defense News. The deal opens India up to the threat of U.S. sanctions, but New Delhi is hoping it has done enough business with Washington recently to secure a waiver. The first S-400 system is slated to be delivered at the end of 2020.

Total loss. The F-35, the U.S. military’s newest and most expensive fighter jet, crashed for the first time on Friday, just hours after a U.S-flown F-35 carried out its first combat airstrike, against a Taliban target in Afghanistan. While the pilot ejected safely, the $100 million-plus Marine Corps jet was deemed a total loss.

MAVNI relaunch on hold. Stricter Trump administration immigration policies have stymied Pentagon plans to restart a program that allowed thousands of people with critical medical or Asian and African language skills to join the military and become American citizens, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, the Associated Press reports over the weekend. The decade-old program has been on hold since 2016 amid concerns that immigrant recruits were not being screened well enough, and security threats were slipping through the system, but defense officials had planned to relaunch the program earlier this month.

Midnight voyages. Until now, most undocumented children being held by federal immigration authorities had been housed in private foster homes or shelters, sleeping two or three to a room and receiving formal schooling. But in order to find room for 13,000 detained migrant children — the largest number ever  — the U.S. government is quietly shipping boys and girls from shelters to camps in West Texas, where school workbooks are not mandatory and access to legal services is limited.

South Africa’s hit men. Political assassinations are rising sharply in South Africa, threatening the stability of hard-hit parts of the country and imperiling Nelson Mandela’s dream of a unified, democratic nation.

New toys. Fresh photos have surfaced of what appears to be a new Russian anti-satellite missile. The rocket was photographed deployed on a Mig-31 interceptor and may represent the latest Russian weapon to target satellites, the Drive reports.

Another day, another breach. Facebook announced it suffered a security breach that appears to have affected at least 50 million users of the platform, Wired reports. The breach appears to go beyond Facebook, as the attackers would have been able to use the stolen security tokens to access other services that use Facebook to sign in.  

Crypto wars. A federal court in California handed a defeat to the Trump administration’s effort to force internet companies to provide access to encrypted messenger services, Reuters reports. U.S. prosecutors attempted asked a court to hold Facebook in contempt of court for its inability to decrypt messenger tied to an investigation of the MS-13 criminal gang, but the court ruled in the companies favor.

Foiled. Police in the Netherlands said they arrested seven men last week believed to be conspiring to carry out a major terrorist attack using weapons and explosives.

Voting wars. With the security features of electronic voting machines facing serious scrutiny in the run-up to this year’s midterm elections, the founder of a major hacking conference says there is a civil war at play within the companies that make the machines between engineers who want to take a proactive approach to security and those who would prefer to ignore the problem. “Half the company wants to deny that there’s any problem and to do things on their own timescale and basically soldier on,” Jeff Moss told CyberScoop last week.

Last week, Moss and hackers working with his DEF CON conference released a report detailing major vulnerabilities in American voting machines.

Leaks. A federal court in Baltimore sentenced Nghia H. Pho to five and a half years in prison for taking highly classified NSA materials home to work nights. Prosecutors allege the material was stolen by Russian hackers by piggybacking on a Kaspersky anti-virus program Pho installed on his computer.

Musical chairs. WikiLeaks named Kristinn Hrafnsson as its new editor in chief, according to the Associated Press. Hrafnsson is an Icelandic journalist and a spokesman for the outlet. The move may be a response to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s increasing isolation at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he apparently remains without internet access.  

Pushing the envelope. Following their well-publicized role interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, the Russian hacking group dubbed Fancy Bear is continuing to innovate in the art of digital meddling. Researchers at the cybersecurity firm ESET have discovered an exotic strain of malware believed to be tied to the hacking group. According to ESET, the discovery of a “UEFI rootkit,” which can remain on a computer even after the hard disk has been wiped, is the first known instance of such a program being spotted in the wild.

Twitter: @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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