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January 1, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

China's pearls
A recently published U.S. military report identifies China as the most significant potential threat for the U.S. military in the future and discloses new details of what it describes as Beijing's efforts to build political influence and military power along the strategic oil-shipping route from the Middle East to China -- a so-called "string of pearls" strategy.

The report, "Joint Operating Environment 2008," was produced by the Norfolk-based U.S. Joint Forces Command. It lists China as the main emerging nation-state threat that U.S. forces could confront in a future conflict, along with potential threats from Russia, the Middle East and other places in Asia. It was made public Nov. 25.

Of China, the report states that its current emergence from isolation is "the most significant single event on the international horizon since the collapse of the Cold War." China's buildup of large numbers of nuclear submarines and an increasingly global navy reflects "worries that the U.S. Navy possesses the ability to shut down China's energy imports of oil -- 80 percent of which go through the straits of Malacca," the report said. It quotes a Chinese naval strategist as saying: "the straits of Malacca are akin to breathing itself -- to life itself." According to the report, 15 million barrels of oil transit each day through the Strait of Malacca, and 17 million barrels pass daily through the Strait of Hormuz. The report includes a graphic showing China's political influence and military presence near oil-shipping lanes. Among them are the development of naval bases, overland supply routes, commercial port facilities, a planned canal through Thailand and two military bases in the South China Sea.

New details contained in the report about Chinese efforts toward greater influence and military bases in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia updates the "string of pearls" strategy that was first reported by The Washington Times in 2005 based on a Pentagon report.

The report lists Pakistan's Gwadar port, near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, as a naval base and surveillance facility for China, and also lists the commercial-shipping container port at Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and the Woody Island airfield as part of the Chinese shipping-lane-protection strategy. The report stated that China's military was given "considerable autonomy" for its buildup by ruling Communist Party political leaders. It said that China "is not yet strong enough militarily, and needs to become stronger over the long term." Chinese leaders' internal debate, however, is not settled on the question of whether military forces should be offensive or defensive, or should emphasize continental or maritime forces, or a mix of the two, the report said.

China's government insists its forces are defensive in nature, but the development of satellite weapons and cyberwarfare capabilities have raised concerns among Pentagon planners.

"The Sino-American relationship represents one of the great strategic question marks of the next twenty-five years," the report said. "Regardless of the outcome - cooperative or coercive, or both - China will become increasingly important in the considerations and strategic perceptions of joint force commanders," the report said.

Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong called the idea of China having a "string of pearls" strategy a "fantasy." "It's true that China is conducting cooperation with some Asian countries in various fields including ports developing, but it's justifiable business for China and the joint ventures are for commercial purposes only," Mr. Wang said. "People should see China's activities with a sensible and more balanced approach. As facts have proven, China's activities are for mutual benefit and peaceful purposes, constituting no threat to anyone else."

The report said the Chinese are studying the strategic and military thinking of the United States and in 2000 had more Chinese military students in U.S. graduate schools than the U.S. military, a practice that has helped China learn U.S. military war-fighting and strategy.

"As a potential future military competitor, China would represent a most serious threat to the United States, because the Chinese could understand America and its strengths and weaknesses far better than Americans understand the Chinese," the report said.

  • Click here to read the Joint Forces Command report, "Joint Operating Environment 2008"

    Gates' deputy
    Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has recommended to senior Obama transition-team officials that an "operator" be appointed deputy secretary, someone with the skills for managing a huge bureaucracy.

    Mr. Gates favors a hands-on manager over the selection of a transitional deputy secretary, who would eventually succeed Mr. Gates after he moves on, in perhaps a year or 18 months, said a defense official close to the secretary.

    "The secretary is not focused on names as much as he is on skills," the official said. "This is particularly important at the deputy secretary position, which requires somebody with operational experience at pulling the levers and prodding the bureaucracy into running efficiently." Among those mentioned as deputy secretary candidates are Richard J. Danzig, a former Navy secretary during the Clinton administration, and John J. Hamre, former deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration. Mr. Hamre, recently the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, has told associates that he does not want to leave his current job as president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    One leading candidate for undersecretary of defense for policy is Obama defense transition team leader Michele A. Flournoy, currently with the Democratic-oriented Center for a New American Security. Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama's transition team for the Defense Department has completed a report on its assessment of how the Pentagon functioned during the past eight years.

    According to two defense officials close to the transition, the report is the first take of what should be done at Defense in the new administration. An announcement of several nominees and appointees, including undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, could come as early as next week.

    The lengthy report is a top-to-bottom assessment of each of the Pentagon's individual sections, with recommendations for improvements or other changes, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the political sensitivities of discussing transition matters.

    The Defense transition team changed course about a month ago after the announcement that Mr. Gates will stay on, causing the team to shift its focus from preparing for a new secretary to reviewing past performance, the officials said.

    One official said Mr. Gates then tasked the transition team to review several additional Pentagon areas, including how the budget is drawn up.

    'Keep attacking'
    Jim O'Beirne, the Pentagon's political appointee for White House liaison, this week sent out a second e-mail to Bush administration political appointees explaining why a total of 90 political appointees working in the Pentagon were shown the door by the Obama transition team, while some 60 percent of the Bush appointees were kept on.

    The dismissed officials, some of whom said they felt slighted by being passed over when an estimated 230 other Bush appointees were kept on, were notified about 10 days ago that they must leave the positions by Jan. 20.

    The notice was sent by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, a senior adviser to President-elect Barack Obama who is likely to be named to a senior position at the Pentagon.

    Mr. O'Beirne sought to explain why most of the appointees were kept on but the 90 officials were let go, stating that he believed politics, not job performance, was the main factor. "If your work was associated with matters regarding which there is a probability of policy change in the Obama Administration, then I think you were affected," he said.

    Mr. O'Beirne, who is among those dismissed, compared the ousted officials to the young special-forces captain fighting in the early days of the Afghan war high in the Hindu Kush mountains.

    The captain used his radio to state: "We have no food, and our water is almost gone. My Afghan soldiers have only 12 rounds left per man. ... We are attacking, we are attacking!" "I encourage you to emulate the actions of that young hero in the 22 days of duty that remain to you at the Pentagon," Mr. O'Beirne said in the Dec. 30 note.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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