The Complex

Team Obama Changes Course, Appears to Accept China Air Defense Zone

Top Obama administration and Pentagon officials signaled a willingness to temporarily accept China's new, controversial air defense identification zone on Wednesday. Those officials expressed disapproval for the way in which the Asian power has flexed its muscles, and cautioned China not to implement the zone. But they also carved out wiggle room in which the United States and China ultimately could find common ground on the issue, indicating that they may be willing to live with the zone for now -- as long as China backs off its demand that all aircraft traveling through it check in first.

"It wasn't the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, America's highest-ranking military officer. "It was their assertion that they would cause all aircraft entering the ADIZ to report regardless of whether they were intending to enter into the sovereign airspace of China. And that is destabilizing."

That's a change from just a few days ago, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden demanded that China take back its declaration of the zone. And it's another demonstration that China's recent decisions have forced the United States to tread carefully. On Wednesday, Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing for more than five hours, according to a senior administration official. In brief public remarks midway through the marathon session, Biden didn't mention the air defense zone at all.

Japan, a vital American ally, has expressed fury over the Chinese move and ordered its commercial airliners not to provide information about their flight paths to the Chinese military. By contrast, the United States made a point of flying a pair of B-52s through it last week, but seems to have accepted that China will keep the zone in place indefinitely. U.S. officials have shifted their focus instead on preventing a potential military clash between Japan and China.

In meetings in Beijing on Wednesday, Biden laid out the U.S. position in detail, reiterating that the United States does not recognize the new zone and has deep concerns about it, a senior administration official said. Biden told Xi that the United States wants China to take steps to lower tensions in the region, avoid enforcement actions that could lead to crisis, and to establish communication with Japan and other countries in the region to avoid altercations, the administration official added. Privately, Biden did not call for the air defense identification zone it to be rolled back -- something administration officials had done Monday while Biden was visiting Japan. Instead, the vice president asked the Chinese leader to be careful about how his country operated the zone going forward.

"He indicated to Xi that we are looking to China to take steps as we move forward to lower tensions, to avoid enforcement actions that could lead to crisis, and to establish channels of communication with Japan, but also with their other neighbors to avoid the risk of mistake, miscalculation, accident or escalation," the official told reporters in Beijing.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the United States does not recognize the zone and China "should not implement it." Administration officials said Biden's message reflects the White House's growing concerns that China's establishment of the air defense identification zone risks sparking a regional crisis. In the long term, the officials said, the United States wants China to eliminate the air defense entirely. With China already patrolling the zone with fighter jets, the officials said the White House was focused on preventing the growing tensions between Japan and China from getting worse. That includes temporary measures like pushing the two countries to establish a hotline designed to ensure that a miscommunication doesn't lead a clash between the two countries.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, took a measured approach. They said the major issue isn't the creation of the zone itself, but the way China has handled it and the country's demand that aircraft entering the zone share their flight plans.

"It's not that the ADIZ itself is new or unique," Hagel said. "Our biggest concern is how it was done so unilaterally and so immediately without any consultation, or international consultation. That's not a wise course of action to take for any country."

Dempsey expanded on that, saying that the ADIZ the Chinese established isn't their sovereign airspace, but international airspace adjacent to it. The international norm for such an area, Dempsey said, is for aircraft to check in with the country declaring an ADIZ only if it intends to enter sovereign airspace afterward. Many other countries, including the United States, also have ADIZ areas established.

The remarks open the possibility that if China backs off its demand that all aircraft in the ADIZ share their flight plans, the United States could lighten up on China establishing a zone. That's unlikely to please Japan, however.

Hagel indirectly addressed that Wednesday. Despite calling China's rollout of the air-defense zone unwise, he also stressed the United States' growing relationship with the Chinese military. He advocated for the preservation of security and free shipping lanes for all players in the region, and sent a message to other U.S. allies in the region -- including Japan.

"It's important for China, Japan, South Korea, all the nations in this area to stay calm and responsible," he said. "These are combustible issues."

LINTAO ZHANG/AFP/Getty Images

The Complex

Army Investigates China Spy Incident ... That Involves No Secrets

No secrets were spilled. And all of the documents in question are publicly available. But the U.S. Army has nonetheless launched an internal review of its administrative practices after members of a Chinese military delegation began asking for U.S. government manuals a bit too aggressively during a September visit to an American base.

The so-called 15-6 investigation reflects the growing unease within some quarters of the U.S. military and the broader American national security community about how best to engage with China's People's Liberation Army. In recent years, the foundation of the relationship has been an approach best described as you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine. But some are questioning that path, especially now that China has sparked an international incident when it declared a so-called "Air Defense Identification Zone" over disputed territory late last month. Vice President Joe Biden called for that declaration to be taken back on Monday. He is expected to visit Beijing later in the week.

At issue in the Army investigation is the behavior of some members of a seven-person Chinese delegation that travelled to the U.S. in late September. The group, led by Maj. Gen. Chen Dongdeng, the PLA's director of so-called "military engagement," visited the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as part of a two-stop visit that also included Washington, D.C. The goal at Leavenworth: to "participate in an informational exchange" on U.S. Army doctrine and "operational theory," according to an internal Army news story produced at the time. But the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, which hosted the delegation, never sought the approval of the Army's G-2 intelligence directorate and bureaucratic feathers got ruffled as a result.

It might have ended there. But during the two-day visit, Dongdeng and members of his delegation asked repeatedly for copies of U.S. Army doctrine documents. Although the documents are "open source" -- meaning they are available to the public -- it was the pointed way in which the Chinese general sought them that raised eyebrows and came off as awkward, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The Army isn't commenting on the conduct of the visitors. An Army official would only acknowledge that the service is conducting an internal review of its administrative practices because of the way in which the visit was handled within the Army.

"What we're looking into is the process of foreign delegations coming to military posts," Army spokesman Lt. Col. Don Peters told Foreign Policy. "We're looking for internal administrative procedures on how to better to do this, how we can do things better."

A Chinese spokesman for the delegation was quoted in the Fort Leavenworth Lamp saying the exchange of "operational theory and doctrine" during the visit is "very important to allow our two militaries to achieve even deeper understanding of each other's military, which helps increase mutual understanding and build mutual trust."

In 2000, Congress passed legislation that limits the ways that the U.S. government can help the PLA by restricting certain "mil-to-mil" contact. The law prevents any contact at all if it poses a national security risk "due to inappropriate exposure." The law lists 12 areas, including information on "force projection" and nuclear, logistical or chemical and biological defense operations. It also restricts mil-to-mil contact on surveillance and reconnaissance operations, joint warfighting experiments and "other activities related to transformations in warfare." Since the law was passed, there has been considerable debate on how to interpret the 12 parameters, or how to ensure that the relationship between the U.S. military and the PLA can continue but stay within the confines of the law.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said she was not aware of any mil-to-mil engagements recently in which the Chinese "stepped outside of boundaries." On the contrary, she said, most have been successful.  "We're not seeing a pattern of Chinese behavior like this," she said.

At least not from members of the Beijing government. In the private sector, however, it's not uncommon for Chinese business executives who are visiting American companies to attempt to split off from their guided tours and pilfer through filing cabinets or try to log into company computers, according to a former U.S. counterintelligence official. "It's like teens shoplifting. You can be supervised by a minder. Then someone causes a distraction, and another goes off to a keyboard and starts looking at something he's not supposed to," the official said.

However, the former official added that it would be rare for Chinese military officials to try to obtain secrets this way during an official visit to the United States. And if they were caught, there would be some form of official protest and the delegation would not be invited back.

When it comes to the mil-to-mil relationship between the U.S. and China, there are believers and and there are doubters. Proponents say it's a way for the U.S. to gain insight into the Chinese military and minimizes the kind of missteps and "miscalculations" that could lead to bigger problems. Skeptics, however, say there is futility in building bridges with the Chinese in the hopes the it will lead to a more transparent relationship.

A report (.pdf) from the Congressional Research Service framed the issue of the U.S.-China mil-to-mil relationship as one on which Congress should remain vigilant. "Skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with the PRC have debated whether the contacts achieve results in U.S. objectives and whether the contacts contribute to the PLA's warfighting capability that might harm U.S. and allied security interests," according to the Nov. 20 report. "Some have argued about whether the value that U.S. officials place on the contacts overly extends leverage to the PLA."

U.S. officials have repeatedly singled out China as a major source of espionage directed at U.S. corporations, government agencies, the military, and the Defense Department. In March, then National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said Chinese theft of U.S. business secrets was "a growing challenge to our economic relationship with China" and a "key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments."

In 2011, a report from the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive marked the first time that U.S. officials had publicly and on record blamed China as the source of so much industrial spying, calling the country the source of "the world's most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage."

The report stated, "China's intelligence services, as well as private companies and other entities, frequently seek to exploit Chinese citizens or persons with family ties to China who can use their insider access to corporate networks to steal trade secrets using removable media devices or e-mail."

But that report dealt mostly with cyber espionage -- Chinese spies hacking into U.S. computers and stealing information. The Ft. Leavenworth incident apparently involved no classified or even sensitive material. Which makes the fuss about it even tougher to fathom.  

U.S. officials and lawmakers have been especially sensitive to potential espionage by another source in China--Huawei, the China-based telecommuniations giant. Late last month, Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Commitee, and Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to top administration officials "to experss our concerns" over reports that Huawei plans to build a broadband network in South Korea. Lawmakers and intelligence officials have accused the company of acting as a proxy for the Chinese military and intellience services. 

The senators asked Secetary of State John Kerry, Secreatry of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for their "assessment of potential threats and security concerns" about Huawei's work in South Korea. The senators are concerned that having Huawei equipment in the networks of an ally that's also a bulkwark against North Korea could compromise U.S. national security. The letter was first reported in the Daily Beast

Huawe's CEO said recently that he's giving up on the U.S. telecom market in the wake of persistent spying allegations. But its foreign business has been thriving.