Security Brief

China’s Military Threatens Protesters

In sweeping new defense strategy, Beijing identifies “separatists” as greatest threat.

Chinese army soldiers perform drills during a demonstration at an open day at the Ngong Shuen Chau Barracks in Hong Kong on June 30.
Chinese army soldiers perform drills during a demonstration at an open day at the Ngong Shuen Chau Barracks in Hong Kong on June 30. ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

What’s on tap: China unveils a new military strategy that calls out separatist movements as Beijing’s greatest security threat, Britain’s push to form a European maritime coalition to safeguard key waterways in the Persian Gulf, and the U.S. Air Force’s plan to fly its new stealth bomber, the B-21, for the very first time.


China Unveils Defense Strategy

‘Radical protesters.’ Unveiling its first defense white paper in four years on Wednesday, a Chinese military official hinted that Beijing was prepared to use force if necessary to maintain control over “radical protesters”–the most explicit warning to date regarding massive demonstrations in Hong Kong.

During a briefing on the updated strategy, which identifies efforts to divide Chinese territory as the greatest threat to Beijing’s security, the Ministry of National Defense’s chief spokesman pointed to a law that allows the People’s Liberation Army to intervene to maintain public order if requested by Hong Kong’s leaders.

“The behavior of some radical protesters challenges the central government’s authority, touching on the bottom line principle of ‘one country, two systems,’” said Senior Col. Wu Qian. “That absolutely cannot be tolerated.”

The PLA has for years maintained a garrison of 6,000 soldiers in bases around the former British colony, but Beijing has never ordered them to intervene in its affairs, writes the New York Times.

Taiwan in the crosshairs. While the strategy itself does not mention the Hong Kong demonstrations, it does call out separatist movements in Taiwan, Tibet and East Turkestan. China once again refused to renounce the use of force to bring Taiwan back into compliance if it attempts to secede–an implicit threat that increasingly worries the U.S. military, which sailed a guided missile cruiser through the Strait of Taiwan to coincide with the release of the white paper.

Answer to Washington. The document is a clear response to the United States’ 2018 shift in strategy from a focus on counterterrorism to a possible conflict with near-peer competitors Russia or China, writes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Russian cooperation. In unveiling the new white paper, a Chinese military spokesperson said the country plans to increase its defense cooperation with Russia. The statement came a day after a joint Chinese-Russian air patrol was confronted by South Korean fighter jets, who fired warning shots at a Russian plane after it allegedly violated South Korean air space.


Britain’s Power Play

Rebuke of Trump. The United Kingdom called this week for a European naval coalition to provide security for commercial ships in the vital Strait of Hormuz after Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker there, a move that was widely seen as a rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, write Lara Seligman and Keith Johnson.

But two big questions arise: Do Britain and Europe have the ships to do the job, and do they have the political will to dispatch them to the shores of Iran despite vehement warnings from Tehran?

Tanker swap? In a sign of easing tensions, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani signalled Wednesday that Tehran may be willing to release the seized British tanker, the Stena Impero, in exchange for Britain’s release of an Iranian tanker it detained near Gibraltar in early July. But at the same time, Tehran doubled down on its resolve not to negotiate with the United States under any circumstances.


What We’re Watching

Esper’s first day. Trump’s new defense secretary Mark Esper kicked off his first day on the job with a visit to the Pentagon press bullpen, telling reporters in a wide-ranging gaggle that he planned to send out updated guidance to the military on engaging the media. He also addressed the security situation in the Strait of Hormuz, tensions with Turkey, competition with China, and a controversial competition to build the Pentagon’s cloud.

Incirlik threat. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the United States could be expelled from its strategically vital air base at Incirlik if it imposes sanctions on Turkey over the purchase of a Russian air defense system.

Veto. President Donald Trump vetoed three congressional resolutions that would have blocked arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates amid concern over their human rights records and in response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Bad behavior. American military commanders sent a U.S. Navy SEAL platoon home to San Diego after the unit was caught drinking while deployed in Iraq, in what is the latest in a series of disciplinary incidents involving the elite force, the Washington Post reports.

First flight. The Air Force’s new heavy stealth bomber, the B-21, is scheduled to make its first flight in December 2021, with the goal of becoming operational in the mid-2020s, the Drive reports. The bomber, set to replace the B-2, is being developed under a cloak of secrecy by Northrop Grumman.

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Mueller’s Big Day

Mueller time. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller told lawmakers on Wednesday that the Russian campaign to interfere in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s embrace of that effort may have established a “new normal” in American politics, laying the groundwork for future meddling in American politics, Elias Groll and Amy Mackinnon report.

Over several hours of questioning before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, Trump’s legal and political liability dominated the line of inquiry, threatening to drown out a dire warning from Mueller about the current state of Russian political interference: “They are doing it as we sit here and they expect to do it during the next campaign,” he said.


North Korean Signaling 

Missile test. North Korea tested what appears to have been a new type of ballistic missile, South Korean officials said on Thursday.  The new missile was fired from the North Korean east coast early Thursday, and South Korean officials are describing it as a short-range ballistic missile, Yonhap reports.

The missile test came came on the heels of a visit by National Security Adviser John Bolton to Seoul for meetings with his counterparts there to discuss trade issues, the nuclear negotiations with the North, and ways to ease tensions with Japan. Nuclear talks with North Korea remain stalled, despite a pledge by President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un to restart working-level talks.

Juche boomers? North Korea unveiled fresh images of what state media describes as a newly built “strategic” submarine that will likely be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the Diplomat reports.

The exact weapons payload to be deployed on the sub remains unclear, but North Korea may be eyeing the sub, which appears to be a variant on a Soviet-era Romeo-class boat, as a platform for its submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Strapping nuclear warheads to those missiles raise a host of safety and command-and-control concerns.

With Washington pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, the release this week of images of a new submarine represents a not so subtle signal that Kim Jong Un intends to hold on to his arsenal. The images, which are carefully cropped to avoid revealing details about how many missiles the modified can carry, show Kim inspecting the vessel.


Technology & Cyber 

NSA’s cyber plans. The National Security Agency announced that it will form a new Cybersecurity Directorate that will more effectively fuse signals intelligence with the agency’s defensive mission in a bid to step up the agency’s efforts to defend against cyberattacks.

Crypto wars. Attorney General Bill Barr revived a debate over the risk posed to law enforcement by encrypted messaging platforms, arguing that criminals are hiding “behind an essentially impenetrable digital shield.” Barr didn’t provide any specific proposals about how law enforcement should be granted access to such systems, an idea that technologists and civil liberty activists view as highly dangerous for communication security.

Spyware. Researchers have discovered a highly advanced mobile spyware system designed to infect Android phones and that appears to have been developed by a Russian defense contractor, Ars Technica reports.

Digital G-men. The FBI is trying to improve the way it investigates criminal hacking schemes by going after financially motivated hackers in the same way it investigates nation-state hackers, Cyber Scoop reports.

Driving the street. Research on the Arab media environment commissioned by White House adviser Jared Kushner discovered a rather remarkable fact about how Palestinians get their news. According to McClatchy, “Kushner’s team discovered that cell phone penetration among Palestinians is so high that a majority now get their news on mobile devices while waiting in line to go through an Israeli checkpoint.”


Movers & Shakers

Britain’s leadership shuffle. New Prime Minister Boris Johnson has appointed Dominic Raab as foreign minister and first secretary of state, a return to office for a former minister who quit Theresa May’s government over her Brexit deal. He also named Ben Wallace, a former British Army officer, as defense secretary after firing Penny Mordaunt, who served just 85 days in office. More on the who’s who in Johnson’s cabinet here.

DOD’s new cyber office. The Pentagon has named Katie Arrington, an unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate, to lead a new cybersecurity office, Bloomberg reports.

Norquist hearing. David Norquist, Trump’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of Defense, testified before the Senate yesterday in a largely uneventful confirmation hearing. He is expected to sail through.


That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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