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Nov. 9, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. on alert for China moves
China’s government is known for using high-level foreign visits to conduct tests of new military equipment such as missiles and stealth aircraft, and the White House is hoping Beijing does not conduct provocative tests while President Trump is visiting the country this week.

The most notable example was the January 2010 visit to China by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, when the Chinese military sought to sabotage the trip by flight-testing the first J-20 stealth fighter. Mr. Gates wrote in his memoir that the People’s Liberation Army nearly “wrecked” the visit. Two hours before he met with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao, China released photos of the new J-20 in what Mr. Gates called “about as big a ‘f– you’ as you can get.”

Mr. Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Forbidden City on Wednesday, and so far there have been no military provocations.

U.S. intelligence agencies were braced for a possible long-range missile test since Sunday after Beijing announced an air-closure zone over an area of western China that was used in the past to test the new DF-41 ICBM. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment when asked if a missile test occurred.

The air closure was reported by East Pendulum, a China-watching news site that has previewed earlier missile tests based on air closure announcements.

East Pendulum’s Henri Kenhmann stated that the closure zone for Nov. 6 was similar to the one used in the test of DF-41 on Dec. 4, 2015.

Asked about a possible provocative move, a senior White House official told Inside the Ring a military test is possible but that the Chinese appear to have been going out of their way to make the Trump visit a success.

“I am familiar with the different situations that have happened in the past, obviously,” the official said. “They told us it was just bad coincidences, but let’s hope that there are no bad coincidences on this trip. We’ll see what happens.”

Another Chinese provocation took place in October 2006 when a Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced within torpedo range of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. The submarine encounter occurred during the visit to China of the then-commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, Adm. Gary Roughead.

On reports that Mr. Trump may join the heavily censored Chinese microblog Sina Weibo during the visit, the senior official said: “He’s always looking to sign up more social media followers, so I wouldn’t rule anything out on that. But I can’t confirm that.”

Nuclear subs for South Korea
South Korea announced this week that President Moon Jae-in and President Trump will launch working-level talks on Seoul acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.

The disclosure that Seoul could buy or lease cruise missile-firing nuclear submarines would greatly enhance the U.S.-South Korean alliance by providing the South Korean military with a non-nuclear long-range strike capability as a deterrent to North Korea.

The Associated Press reported that the presidential office announced the agreement for submarine talks as part of efforts by the United States to bolster the country’s defenses. South Korea also could purchase reconnaissance aircraft and other advanced weaponry.

Mr. Moon has been a supporter of seeking American assistance in developing a nuclear submarine capability since the government first studied but rejected building nuclear-powered subs in the early 2000s.

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said providing nuclear submarines to South Korea would send a powerful message to China to curb its covert backing for North Korea’s nuclear missile programs.

The Trump administration recently sanctioned a Chinese missile manufacturer for transferring six trucks that were used as mobile missile launchers by Pyongyang.

“Helping South Korea acquire nuclear submarines is a stunning contrast to the passivity of the Obama administration and starts a real change in Washington’s willingness to help its Asian allies obtain effective strategic capabilities that will be sorely needed to deter Chinese military threats in the coming decades,” Mr. Fisher said.

Nuclear submarines represent a strategic capability short of nuclear weapons, and the United States should offer the same assistance to Japan and Australia.

“China should also be warned: A refusal to reverse its assistance to North Korea’s nuclear missile program and to reverse China’s own military threats could leave the U.S. will little choice but to aid its allies who desire an independent nuclear deterrent,” Mr. Fisher said.

China likely will oppose the submarine assistance as the first step in the United States helping to arm Asian allies with nuclear weapons, but Mr. Fisher believes it is a necessary defensive step.

“As the U.S. contemplates the necessity of such a move, it must begin the hard work of mobilizing a broad[ly] allied, Cold War-like series of defenses against China’s accelerating military challenge,” he said.

Parliamentary leaders in both South Korea and Japan have suggested in recent months that their respective countries seek nuclear arms based on the growing threat from North Korea.

Major Trump administration changes coming
A knowledgeable Trump administration official tells Inside the Ring that major high-level changes are coming in January.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has shown himself to be one of President Trump’s most loyal aides, is slated to take over as secretary of state from Rex W. Tillerson.

The likely switch means U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley will remain at her post in New York, where she has won high marks from Mr. Trump as a competent envoy to the international organization.

Mr. Pompeo has been leading efforts at CIA to focus the intelligence agency on the North Korean threat and plugging leaks of information. He also has engaged in extensive international travel as part of intelligence liaison activities around the world.

The opening at CIA headquarters is expected to be filled by former Navy SEAL and retired Vice Adm. Bob Harward, a former Central Command deputy commander who earlier this year turned down an offer to be White House national security adviser after NSC adviser Michael Flynn left the position.

A spokesman for Mr. Harward, currently an executive at Lockheed Martin, declined to comment. A CIA spokesman also declined to comment.

Mr. Tillerson is said to have tipped the scales in favor of his replacement last month when it was reported he called the president “a moron” and then refused to deny the name-calling episode during a major television appearance.

The former Exxon Mobil chairman has had a rocky tenure at Foggy Bottom, with critics saying he has been turning over key foreign policymaking roles to State Department bureaucrats and others who do not share Mr. Trump’s America First agenda.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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