Security Brief

Taiwan Boosts Military Spending as China Looms

Taipei unveiled a significant increase in its defense budget, with an eye to Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong.

Taiwan army soldiers pose for photos on an US-made M60-A3 tank after a life-fire exercise in Taichung, central Taiwan, on January 17, 2019. (SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)
Taiwan army soldiers pose for photos on an US-made M60-A3 tank after a life-fire exercise in Taichung, central Taiwan, on January 17, 2019. (SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s on tap: Taiwan increases its defense budget with an eye to Hong Kong, Trump sends a delegation to Syria to hash out the details of a safe zone with Turkey, and the U.S. Air Force finds dangerous cyber vulnerabilities in a sophisticated fighter jet. 

Taiwan’s Defense Boost

Record increase. Taiwan on Thursday unveiled its largest defense spending boost in more than a decade in a sharp signal to its neighbor China, which considers the island nation its own and has threatened to use force against it. 

President Tsai Ing-wen’s cabinet signed off on an 8.3 percent increase in military spending for next year as Beijing ramps up military pressure on Taiwan, conducting drills around it and flying jets across the border. Beijing has refused to rule out using military force to bring the self-ruling island back in line if there is any move toward Taiwan’s independence. 

An eye to Hong Kong. Taipei’s move to increase military spending is not happening in a vacuum. China has been quietly extending its reach across the world, from using predatory economic practices in Africa to intimidating fishing vessels in the Philippines. Most concerning is Beijing’s reaction to what began as peaceful protests in Hong Kong, and now have escalated to violent street clashes and chaos at the city’s airport. 

Paramilitary forces exercise. On Thursday, Chinese paramilitary forces conducted exercises across the border from the Asian financial hub, raising fears that Beijing may be prepared to take action against the demonstrators. It’s the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, not the People’s Liberation Army, actually does much of China’s dirty work domestically in clamping down on internal dissent, writes Hilton Yip for Foreign Policy

Where will this end? In a series of Tweets late Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping should deal with Hong Kong “humanely” before making any trade deal with the United States. 

While it’s not clear that Twitter pressure from the U.S. president will sway Xi either way, experts say it is unlikely China will intervene militarily in Hong Kong. Beijing is sensitive to the still-fresh memories of the bloody Tiananmen crackdown, and any such intervention could have devastating economic effects on the territory. But Beijing’s next steps in Hong Kong are a good indicator of what Taiwan can expect, and Taipei will be watching closely. 

What We’re Watching 

U.S. applies to seize Iranian tanker. In the latest provocation between the West and Tehran, the U.S. government has moved to seize the Iranian oil tanker being held at Gibraltar, the Grace 1, just as authorities seemed to be close to releasing it. Britain seized the ship on July 4 on charges that it was carrying oil to Syria in violation of a European Union embargo; Iran retaliated by detaining a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. 

The Strait has become a flash point since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran. European nations are trying to salvage what remains of the deal and diffuse rising tensions in the region, but this latest provocation could lead to another crisis. 

Syria safe zone. The Trump administration has sent a military delegation to coordinate with Turkey on establishing a safe zone in Syria, Al-Monitor reports. But outstanding differences remain between about the size and extent of the area to separate Ankara and US-backed Kurdish forces holding thousands of Islamic State fighters in prisons in northeast Syria. 

The retired general who commanded U.S. Central Command until March, Gen. Joseph Votel, made his feelings about the safe zone clear in an op-ed in the National Interest. “For any deal in northeastern Syria to work, it has to provide a sustainable solution to U.S. and Turkish security interests and address Kurdish concerns,” Votel wrote with Gönül Tol, the founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. “The current agreement fails on all counts.”

What’s happening in Russia? At around 6 a.m. GMT on Aug. 8, seismic and acoustic sensors in Sweden, Finland and Norway detected an explosion. Then, the confusion began. As contradictory reports and disinformation swirl, the size and nature of the explosion is still unclear–did it even happen at all? Defense News’s Matthew Bodner has a behind-the-scenes look at the mysterious incident.

Afghan drawdown. The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to substantially cut the number of U.S. troops and diplomats in Afghanistan, even though another round of talks between the United States and the Taliban aimed at resolving nearly two decades of war ended without a deal this week, the Los Angeles Times reports. But experts warn that an overly hasty downsizing of U.S. presence in the country risks sacrificing the progress made in human rights and development–especially if no meaningful peace treaty is in place. 

Khamenei meets Yemen rebels. Iran’s supreme leader held talks with a senior Yemeni rebel official just days after the long-running Saudi-led intervention suffered a major setback, with southern separatists seizing the city of Aden of Saturday. “Scores” of people were killed and hundreds wounded during the fighting, which the Guardian reports left large parts of the city without electricity and water. 

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Technology & Cyber

Huawei’s surveillance state. Employees of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei have in at least two cases personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media, and using cell data to track their whereabouts, according to a bombshell Wall Street Journal investigation

Fighter jet vulnerabilities. A team of highly vetted hackers recently tried to sabotage a vital flight system for a U.S. military F-15 fighter jet–and they succeeded, writes the Washington Post. Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, pinned the weaknesses on decades of neglect of cybersecurity, and vowed to turn that around. 

Cloud wars. The Defense Department’s inspector general is reviewing the Pentagon’s handling of its largest cloud computing project, a massive contract worth up to $10 billion over 10 years that has sparked an ugly competition between tech giants Amazon and Microsoft. 

The new hurdle for the JEDI effort comes as the Pentagon begins feeling the pressure–China is racing to develop its own military cloud computing system, writes CNBC. 

China weaponizing biotech. The PLA is pursuing military applications for biology with alarming implications–from genetically modified humans, to “brain control” weapons, to ethnic genetic attacks, writes Defense One

FP Recommends 

The skipper that fled Iran. Capt. Kavon Hakimzadeh, who fled Tehran as a child, is headed back to the region–but this time as commander of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. His journey from Tehran to enlisted sailor to an officer in command of the ultimate symbol of American seapower is a story that he believes serves as a testament to the opportunities the United States provides, writes Brock Vergakis in a feature for the Virginia-Pilot. 

Movers & Shakers

Top VP aide to DOD. Vice President Mike Pence’s spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, is headed to the Pentagon in September, where she will be double-hatted as the press secretary and deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense for media affairs. The last person to hold these positions was Rear Adm. John Kirby, from 2013 to 2015. Kirby went on to serve as the State Department’s spokesman after he retired from military service.

Farah is cut from a very different cloth. At just 30 years old, she most recently served as the spokeswoman for the conservative House Freedom Caucus and before that as communications director for Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). But the Pentagon press corps is hoping her appointment means the on-record, on-camera briefings that used to be a regular occurrence may finally be returning. 

The NSC’s new China lead. Trump has appointed a Uighur American academic, Elnigar Iltebir, to be the National Security Council’s lead on China policy, one of the administration’s top priorities, Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer report. Iltebir’s family hails from the northeastern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of waging a cultural genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uighurs.

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

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