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June 9, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Chinese jet threatened U.S. intel jet
A Chinese fighter jet conducted an unsafe intercept of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the East China Sea this week in the latest showdown between China and the United States over the American military presence in the region, U.S. officials said.

The incident Tuesday took place over the East China Sea and the Pentagon in its statement avoided criticizing the Chinese military for flying one of its warplanes dangerously close to a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft.

“U.S. Pacific Command has reviewed the details of an intercept of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, a U.S. Air Force RC-135, on a routine patrol by two Chinese jets, J-10s, that occurred on June 7 in international airspace, over the East China Sea,” said Cmdr. David Benham, spokesman for the command.

“One of the intercepting Chinese jets had an unsafe excessive rate of closure on the RC-135 aircraft,” he said. “Initial assessment is that this seems to be a case of improper airmanship, as no other provocative or unsafe maneuvers occurred.”

Cmdr. Benham said the Pentagon is “addressing the issue with China in appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”

China, as it has done in the past, denied its pilot acted recklessly.

“The U.S. once again is deliberately hyping this issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing. “The relevant Chinese military personnel have always acted professionally and in accordance with law.”

Mr. Hong also repeated demands that the Pentagon halt all “close surveillance activity against China … to prevent similar incidents from happening again.”

The air and sea encounters are part of what defense analysts say is a Beijing strategy to drive the U.S. military, a force for peace and stability in the region for decades, out of Asia.

As in the South China Sea, where the United States is backing neighboring states against China’s expansive maritime claims to some 80 percent of the sea, the East China Sea has seen showdowns in the past between China and Japan over Japan’s Senkaku Islands, that China claims as its territory. The Pentagon has said any Chinese military move against the Senkakus would trigger American involvement under the U.S.-Japan Defense Mutual Treaty.

Tuesday’s encounter followed a similar dangerous intercept over the South China Sea May 19, when a Chinese J-11 flew with 50 feet of an EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft near Hainan Island, causing the EP-3 pilot to make a sharp maneuver to avoid a collision. The recent encounters appear to undermine the 2014 memorandum of understanding between China and the United States to take steps to avoid such dangerous aerial encounters.

The memorandum outlines detailed procedures for naval encounters between U.S. and Chinese warships but does not contain similar guidelines for aerial encounters. The Pentagon has been trying to reach a formal agreement with China on aerial encounters, but Beijing is demanding that the United States end all aerial surveillance activities near Chinese coasts, something the Defense Department so far has refused to do.

As a result, Chinese jets continue to harass U.S. surveillance planes in Asia and defense officials have said the lack of a vigorous response is encouraging further dangerous intercepts.

On Sept. 15, an RC-135 was intercepted unsafely by a Chinese jet in the Yellow Sea. An August 2014 encounter involved a Chinese J-11 conducting a risky barrel-roll maneuver over a U.S. P-8 maritime patrol aircraft flying over the South China Sea.

Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the Pacific Command, told a Singapore defense conference last weekend that China has engaged in “positive behavior” in the last several months, and only “now and then” will carry out an unsafe military activity.

Adm. Harris said he favors cooperating with China “in all domains” as much as possible, “but we have to confront them if we must.”

U.S.-China strategic talks end
The Obama administration concluded the eighth and final round of its much heralded high-level U.S.-China talks in Beijing, talks that have produced little in the way of resolving issues such as China’s massive government cyberattacks on U.S. networks.

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held in Beijing June 6-7, ended, as in the past, with another long listing of questionable achievements.

A 32-page White House statement lists “specific outcomes” couched in vague diplomatic-speak and containing no specific accomplishments, other than many promises to continue talks. The issues ranged from military exchanges, to wildlife trafficking and climate change to work on the “China-U.S. Smoke-Free Workplaces initiative.”

The statement made no mention of China’s large-scale program of cybertheft of both U.S. commercial and government secrets being raised during the talks at the Beijing dialogue, led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew.

Instead, the White House said the two countries “welcomed” the informal cyber commitment made by Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama in September not to conduct state-sponsored economic cyberespionage to benefit industries, something the United States does not do but that China has shown no sign of ending. Senior U.S. intelligence officials recently said as much to Congress that there is no evidence Beijing has curbed cyber attacks since September.

China was blamed for stealing 22 million records of federal workers from the Office of Personnel Management, including extremely sensitive data on security and intelligence personnel.

To date, the Obama administration has taken no action against China for the cyberattacks, despite a recent executive order calling for sanctions against states linked to such cyberattacks.

Contrary to stating its opposition to Chinese cyberspying, the White House list says the administration plans to discuss with Beijing the security of online users’ personal information — talks that could provide Chinese hackers with new clues to enable additional cybertheft.

The talks with the Chinese government on network data security and the protection of computer users’ personal information are something that should raise security concerns considering the OPM hack.

Officials from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology will meet U.S. Federal Trade Commission officials “to discuss approaches to data security and user’s personal information protection of the two countries,” the statement said.

The White House also revealed plans for other exchanges that could raise security concerns, including talks on advanced electric power-grid technology, something critics say could be used by China to conduct future cyber attacks against U.S. infrastructure.

Also, the Energy Department plans meetings with the Chinese Academy of Sciences officials on high-energy physics, harkening back to damaging Chinese nuclear espionage in the 1990s that grew out of U.S.-China nuclear laboratory exchanges. The lab exchanges led to the loss of strategic secrets to China through espionage related to every deployed nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal.

Another exchange is listed under “civil space” cooperation, an inaccurate description because all China’s space activities are done under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army.

Firm: Hackers expanding targets
A security firm is warning that cyberattacks are expanding from data theft to destruction of computer and information networks.

Analysts from FireEye said state-sponsored hackers, such as those from the Chinese military, pose the greatest danger. Other cyberthreats come from cyber criminals and online hacktivists.

“FireEye analysts have noted that threat actors continue to broaden their scope,” the report said. “They are not only interested in seizing the corporate crown jewels but are also looking for ways to publicize their views, cause physical destruction, and influence global decision makers, regardless of industry or company size.”

Hackers are “diversifying and expanding their targeting across myriad industries,” the report said, adding that “government agencies and their contractors are not their only targets anymore.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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