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June 7, 2012
Notes from the Pentagon

A key House Republican this week stepped up pressure on the Obama administration for its weak public response to the growing threat posed by China's military buildup.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus, said in an article published Tuesday that the U.S. government has a “frightening reluctance” to highlight the challenges posed by China.

“This needs to end,” the Virginia Republican said on the blog of the Center for International and Strategic Studies. “U.S. officials must come to accept that while there are plenty of opportunities for cooperation with [China], there are also elements of our relationship that are and will remain competitive.”

The extended peacetime competition with China “at its heart is a clash of visions for the international system,” he said.

“This is not to say that conflict between our countries is inevitable. But if U.S. leaders are expected to marshal the diplomatic and military resources necessary to engage in this long-term competition, they must first be willing to speak more candidly about Beijing’s growing capabilities and strategic intentions.”

Mr. Forbes is in the forefront among U.S. officials seeking to tell the truth about China. His office produces the influential daily Caucus Brief of news and information on China that is said to have more than 1,000 readers, mainly congressional members and staff.

The lawmaker’s comments come as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is finishing a major visit to Asia, where he only hinted during stops in Hanoi and Delhi that the U.S. shift toward Asia is targeted at countering the growing aggressiveness of China and its communist-ruled military, specifically in seeking control of Asia’s strategic, international waterways.

By not directly discussing the threat from China, Mr. Panetta was observing a secret directive within the Obama administration that prevents all U.S. officials from directly pointing to the growing threat from China.

The directive, according to officials familiar with it, is the work of pro-China officials who say highlighting the China threat will spur its military to more-aggressive arms development.

China's military has been engaged in a decades-long buildup of military power that includes both strategic nuclear forces and advanced conventional forces that most experts agree is aimed at winning a future conflict with the United States.

The arms include at least three new nuclear missiles, an anti-ship ballistic missile for use against U.S. warships, large numbers of new submarines, anti-satellite weapons and large-scale and highly effective cyberwarfare capabilities.

Pentagon officials have said that there has been little pressure from Congress to do more to counter China's military buildup.

Mr. Forbes has been among the most outspoken, along with several other Republicans, including Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, chairman of strategic forces subcommittee; and Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia.

Critics of the administration’s China policy say the most visible example of the failure to speak out about China's military buildup is the latest annual Pentagon report on the subject.

One official said it is the “most dumbed-down” report yet produced.

In the Senate, concerns over China's military were voiced by Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who led efforts to highlight the need to sell additional F-16s to Taiwan that was rejected by the administration as a way to avoid upsetting military exchanges with Beijing.

There is widespread support for selling the additional jets based on China’s major buildup of missiles across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait where more than 1,200 Chinese missiles are targeted on the island.

The debate over new F-16s to Taiwan is now being augmented by calls for selling the more advanced F-35, specifically a short-takeoff variant that could survive a missile strike on military runways.

Other deficiencies in speaking about China include the Pentagon’s playing down of cyberattacks from the Chinese military. Defense spokesmen have dismissed the attacks by claiming there is not enough evidence to link them to China’s army.

However, defense officials with access to classified data say the level of detail the connects the army to worldwide cyberattacks is alarming.

Richard Fisher, a military-affairs specialists, agrees with Mr. Forbes.

“By cutting the public version of the 2012 Pentagon China report in half, the much greater amount of data in the classified version becomes ‘denied’ for use in public debate,” Mr. Fisher said.

“This means that members of Congress will also feel far more constrained from using current threat data to justify defense programs this country needs. This is the kind of intellectual disarmament that precedes unilateral disarmament.”

U.S. intelligence agencies are quietly celebrating the death of al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed this week in a CIA-directed drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal area.

The taking out of al Libi is another major blow to the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11 attacks. The killing of the al Qaeda leader is yet another sign of the group’s decline after more than a dozen of its commanders have been neutralized.

“Abu Yahya was among al Qaeda’s most experienced and versatile leaders - operational trainer and Central Shura head - and played a critical role in the group’s planning against the West, providing oversight of the external operations efforts,” said a U.S. official who confirmed the death.

Current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, “will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into Abu Yahya’s shoes,” the official added.

“In addition to his gravitas as a longstanding member of AQ’s leadership, Abu Yahya’s religious credentials gave him the authority to issue fatwas, operational approvals and guidance to the core group in Pakistan and regional affiliates. There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise AQ has just lost,” he said.

U.S. officials say recent intelligence reports indicate that both Russia and North Korea are covertly supplying arms to Syria’s government, which has been condemned for the massacre of civilians.

According to the officials, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been getting arms from two ships, the Russian freighter named Professor Katsman and the North Korean-flagged Odai.

The ships are believed to contain military goods. The Russian ship was destined for the major Syrian port of Tartus late last month. It could not be learned if its weapons reached Syria or whether the ship was diverted because of diplomatic pressure.

The North Korean vessel was believed to be carrying weapons and bound for Latakya, Syria’s second main port.

Officials commented on the arms shipments after they were first reported May 28 by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Iran is also said to be involved in the illicit arms trade by supplying the financing for the Assad regime because both the Russians and North Koreans are demanding cash for the weapons.

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