Trump tweets, Hong Kong burns; Huawei spy ops exposed in Africa; Hackers waltz into F-15s, voting machines; Syria’s HTS rebels shoot down a plane; And a bit more.

China’s military is practicing riot control drills today just over the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen. Meanwhile in Africa, the nefarious work of China’s technicians employed by Huawei, and the 5G infrastructure they’re trying to install throughout the world, just became clearer. But first to Hong Kong…

In the parking lot of a Shenzhen sports complex, Chinese “police could be seen carrying out crowd-control exercises, and more than 100 dark-painted paramilitary vehicles filled the stadium’s parking lots,” Reuters reports.

The warning from China’s Ambassador to the UK: Some of your politicians’ “hands are still in the colonial days” and they had all better “refrain from saying or doing anything that interferes or undermines the rule of law in Hong Kong.” More from the BBC, here

BTW: “People working in [Hong Kong] are ditching their personal phones, and wiping their data when travelling to mainland China,” Bloomberg reports. “One banker refused to pack black outfits, while another deleted Whatsapp.”

President Trump’s modest proposal: Chinese President Xi Jingping should meet with Trump or maybe even the protesters. His tweet on the matter Wednesday: “I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a ‘tough business.’ I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”

Trump’s follow-up tweet this morning: “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!”

Howling reactions quickly followed. New Yorker writer Jiayang Fan responded in jest: “Xi: I know president trump of USA v well. He is a magnificently incompetent leader who very much is a boon to my rule.He is also an amoral man who makes autocracy less of a tough business for me.I have ZERO doubt if I wanted to roll tanks& raze down civilians,he’d have my back.”

Michael Fuchs, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former deputy assistant secretary of state for Asia wrote: “Trump makes it crystal clear: He only cares about trade with China, not Hong Kong. This is as direct a signal Xi Jinping will get that POTUS won’t lift a finger in response to a violent crackdown in Hong Kong. This is horrendous.”… and later… “Imagine taking the side of a brutal dictator over people willing to sacrifice everything just to live in a free society.”

ICYMI: Trump wants an end to Hong Kong tensions that’s tied to a trade deal with China. More on that angle from NBC News, here

China’s reaction to that idea: “Hong Kong’s affairs are purely China’s internal affairs,” the Foreign Ministry told reporters today when asked directly. “As for high-level exchanges between China and the United States, both leaders have maintained contact through meetings, calls and other communication channels.”

Amazon prime target: Reuters reports the digital retailer is facing “online backlash in China for T-shirts with Hong Kong democracy slogans.” … “The hashtag ‘Amazon T-Shirts’ became the fourth-top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Wednesday.” Now Chinese hackers have hit the site and “even figured out a way to hijack the product images by changing them into Chinese flags,” Yahoo reports

Two dire headlines stemming from the U.S.-China trade war and its toll on world markets today, in the Wall Street Journal

  • As Global Order Crumbles, Risks of Recession Grow.” The quick read, from economics columnist Greg Ip: “For the past two years, the U.S. and world economies shrugged off nationalism and populism. Protectionism was contained and more than offset by positives such as Mr. Trump’s tax cut and deregulatory drive. It can no longer be ignored: Businesses and investors, unsure of what if any rules will govern international commerce, are retreating from risky investments.”
  • Poor Chinese and German Economic Data Fan Fears of Global Slowdown.” In this report: “The Chinese data could portend more pain for Germany, whose car makers and capital-goods manufacturers are among the most successful Western businesses in China. The country was Germany’s third-largest export market last year after the U.S. and France… Attention is now focusing on just how far the trade dispute between Washington and China will go.”

About Huawei’s spying in Uganda and Zambia: The Wall Street Journal reports “Technicians from the Chinese powerhouse have, in at least two cases, personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media, and using cell data to track their whereabouts.” 

Why this matters: It would seem to confirm U.S. suspicions going back to at least 2012 that Huawei technology could easily be used as “a potential tool for the Chinese government to spy abroad.” 

Who did the spying? The Journal devoted two grafs to make the point that its “investigation didn’t turn up evidence of spying by or on behalf of Beijing in Africa. Nor did it find that Huawei executives in China knew of, directed or approved the activities described. It also didn’t find that there was something particular about the technology in Huawei’s network that made such activities possible,” unlike what Matt Wyckhouse of Finite State told us in a recent podcast about the future of cybersecurity

What the Journal reports: “Details of the operations, however, offer evidence that Huawei employees played a direct role in government efforts to intercept the private communications of opponents.”

Similar activity took place in Zambia, and involved “two Huawei experts based in a cyber-surveillance unit in the offices of Zambia’s telecom regulator who pinpointed [specific] bloggers’ locations and were in constant contact with police units deployed to arrest them in the northwestern city of Solwezi.”

One more thing about Uganda and China: The former signed a $126 million deal with the latter for a closed-circuit television camera system from Huawei, Reuters reports this morning. 

For the record: “Huawei has sold advanced video-surveillance and facial-recognition systems in more than two dozen developing countries,” the Journal writes. Algeria could be next. Much more to the story, here

VP Mike Pence will be headed to the UK, Ireland, and Iceland in early September to talk about China, among other things, the White House announced Wednesday. 

That Iceland stopover, you know it well: Pence will “highlight Iceland’s strategic importance in the Arctic, NATO’s efforts to counter Russian aggression in the region, and opportunities to expand mutual trade and investment.” (NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltnberg also visited Iceland this summer making the same point, re: Russia.) 

London calling (but not on China’s 5G, he hopes): Pence plans on “addressing the threat of Chinese malign influence, including in the development of 5G telecommunications networks” as well as chatting about Brexit and trying to convince the Brits to join Trump’s plans for “countering Iranian aggression in the Middle East and beyond.”  Yeah, about that

And he’ll end in Ireland to celebrate “the economic relationship between our two countries” (We hope with a pint of Guinness.)


From Defense One

Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missiles Are a Terrible Idea. Russia’s Test Explosion Shows Why // Patrick Tucker: A flying unshielded nuclear reactor would spew massive amounts of radiation, and that’s if it’s working correctly. 

Weaponizing Biotech: How China’s Military Is Preparing for a ‘New Domain of Warfare’ // Elsa B. Kania and Wilson VornDick: Under Beijing’s civil-military fusion strategy, PLA General Hospital has emerged as a leader in gene-editing research.

It’s High Time for Germany to Fund, and Fix, Its Military // Daniel DePetris: The country is far from NATO’s 2% budget guideline, and its defense establishment is rife with dysfunction.

DOD Inspector General Clarifies Office’s Role in JEDI Cloud Decision // Frank R. Konkel, Nextgov: The Pentagon’s IG is reviewing complaints from multiple sources.

GAO: Energy Dept. Never Blacklists Risky Nuclear-Tech Vendors // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: The process is too time-consuming and narrow to be effective, reply officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Kevin Baron. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the western coast of the island of Corsica.


In Syria, al-Qaeda-linked rebels shot down an Assad regime plane Wednesday as government troops closed in a notorious town in the northwest. “The town of Khan Sheikhoun is a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful group in the rebel-held areas,” AP reports. And Khan Sheikhoun, you may remember,  “was the scene of a chemical attack on April 4, 2017 that killed 89 people.” Syrian troops have captured three small villages west of the city where HTS is holding that Syrian air force pilot. A bit more, here
Elsewhere in Syria, protecting and rehabilitating captured ISIS fighters is a tough job, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported in a photo feature from a prison in the northeastern city of Qamishli that’s guarded by America’s Kurdish allies in Syria.

Thousands of Yemenis rallied today in support of separatists in the southern city of Aden, which Reuters reports seems to be a further indication the country certainly is not coming together after four years of war. Indeed, “Many traveled into Aden from other southern provinces on Wednesday, sleeping overnight in the central parade square. One man held up a battered old identity document from former South Yemen and many waved the South Yemen flag.”
Funding some of these southern separatists: The UAE. (Saudis, on the other hand, have asked the separatists to cede control of key positions inside Aden.)

Secret talks: UAE officials have been meeting with Israelis about Iran in an arrangement coordinated by the U.S., the Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum reports this morning. 
Why this matters: Historic disagreements over things like the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have limited Israel’s Arab relations to Egypt and Jordan. But “shared antipathy toward Tehran and its attempts to spread its regional influence” has changed all that as “concerns grew about Iran’s nuclear program and its role in conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.” However, Middle East analysts aren’t eager just yet to call these developments a new normal. Read on behind the WSJ paywall, here

U.S.-Iran tensions were about to ease a bit today until the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in at the last minute to try and prevent an impounded oil tanker from being released back to Iran from its current location in Gibraltar, AP reports. The U.S. move effectively “prevent[s] a possible swap for a British-flagged tanker held by Iran,” Reuters adds.
Where to go from here depends on Gibraltar’s response, the lawyer for the Iranian tanker’s crew told the Wall Street Journal
Bigger picture: “The two seized tankers — an Iranian one in Gibraltar and a British one in Iran — have become pawns in the standoff between Iran and the West,” Reuters writes, “with their fate tangled in the diplomatic differences between the EU’s big powers and the United States.” More here

Afghan officials and former insurgents fear a peace deal with the Taliban will improve the Islamic State’s fortunes in Afghanistan, according to Reuters in Kabul. According to one former member of the Taliban who defected to the Kabul government, all it takes for the situation to deteriorate rapidly is government negligence. “It’s the easiest thing,” he told Reuters, to “just change the white [Taliban] flag to a black [ISIS] one.”

Former Blackwater guard Nicholas Slatten just got life in prison — for the second time — “for his role in a 2007 Baghdad shooting that marked one of the lowest points of the U.S. war in Iraq,” WSJ reported Wednesday afternoon. Slatten’s 2014 conviction was tossed to allow for new evidence. 
Said the judge Wednesday of the sentencing: “He gets what he gambled for,” receiving a murder conviction at trial. Now, “Mr. Slatten’s team of attorneys, including trial heavyweight Dane Butswinkas, promised to appeal the sentence as a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” 

Voting machine hacking? No problem. At this year’s Def Con hacker conference in Las Vegas, “white hat” hackers had virtually no trouble breaking into U.S. voting machines, the Washington Post reported earlier this week. 
F-15 hacking? Also no problem. On Wednesday, a different group of hackers at the same conference “found serious vulnerabilities” in the fighter jets. The Post’s Joe Marks has the story, with comment from Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, here

And finally today: Did you know that each day nearly 300 U.S. troops passed through Ireland’s Shannon Airport during the first three months of 2019? 
Today, one of the planes ferrying those troops — a Boeing 767-300 — caught fire on the runway, forcing everyone to evacuate down those emergency slides we hear about in the pre-flight safety briefing, Irish Times reports. Stranger still, “the crew was forced to abort an earlier take-off because of an [unspecified and apparently separate] issue in the cockpit,” ITs writes. The second complication, the one that caused the evacuation and a temporary closure of the runway, concerned smoke billowing from the right-side landing gear as the aircraft was taxiing on the runway. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in any of these developments, and the runway is now open. We hope they all get a pint. More, here.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne