Posts Tagged ‘intelligence’

The Hainan Island Incident, Ten Years Later

April 1, 2011
The US Navy EP-3 that landed on Hainan Island ...

Image via Wikipedia

Hard to believe, but today is the 10th anniversary of the 2001 incident in which a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft operating above the waters of the South China Sea was struck by a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) interceptor jet. The U.S. pilot, Shane Osborn (who has gone on to be a successful politician in Nebraska), managed to keep the crippled plane in the air while the crew members hastily tried to destroy as much of the payload as possible – classified equipment and materials related to the aircraft’s surveillance mission. Unfortunately, due to the in extremis situation, the crew was only able to partially complete this task before an emergency landing was made at an airfield on Hainan Island. The crew was taken into custody and the aircraft seized.

The PRC lost the jet pilot who ran into the EP-3, but in the long run they gained a lot more. Writing in the November 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh detailed the take:

The plane carried twenty-four officers and enlisted men and women attached to the Naval Security Group Command, a field component of the National Security Agency. They were repatriated after eleven days; the plane stayed behind. The Pentagon told the press that the crew had followed its protocol, which called for the use of a fire axe, and even hot coffee, to disable the plane’s equipment and software. These included an operating system created and controlled by the N.S.A., and the drivers needed to monitor encrypted Chinese radar, voice, and electronic communications. It was more than two years before the Navy acknowledged that things had not gone so well. “Compromise by the People’s Republic of China of undestroyed classified material . . . is highly probable and cannot be ruled out,” a Navy report issued in September, 2003, said.

The Navy’s experts didn’t believe that China was capable of reverse-engineering the plane’s N.S.A.-supplied operating system, estimated at between thirty and fifty million lines of computer code, according to a former senior intelligence official. Mastering it would give China a road map for decrypting the Navy’s classified intelligence and operational data. “If the operating system was controlling what you’d expect on an intelligence aircraft, it would have a bunch of drivers to capture radar and telemetry,” Whitfield Diffie, a pioneer in the field of encryption, said. “The plane was configured for what it wants to snoop, and the Chinese would want to know what we wanted to know about them—what we could intercept and they could not.” And over the next few years the U.S. intelligence community began to “read the tells” that China had access to sensitive traffic.

The U.S. realized the extent of its exposure only in late 2008. A few weeks after Barack Obama’s election, the Chinese began flooding a group of communications links known to be monitored by the N.S.A. with a barrage of intercepts, two Bush Administration national-security officials and the former senior intelligence official told me. The intercepts included details of planned American naval movements. The Chinese were apparently showing the U.S. their hand. (“The N.S.A. would ask, ‘Can the Chinese be that good?’ ” the former official told me. “My response was that they only invented gunpowder in the tenth century and built the bomb in 1965. I’d say, ‘Can you read Chinese?’ We don’t even know the Chinese pictograph for ‘Happy hour.’ ”)

This incident can be considered as the opening event in a series of clashes that have marked increased tensions between the U.S. and the PRC in the South China Sea. In the next instance of conflict between the two nations, in 2009 an unarmed U.S. ocean surveillance vessel manned by civilians ran into trouble in about the same area of the South China Sea. Chinese vessels harassed the ship and nearly rammed it, while at the same time attempting to snag its towed sonar array. Since then, direct U.S.-China confrontation has been supplanted by amplified pressure between China and other countries surrounding the South China Sea, many of whom have competing claims to land features and territories in the sea such as the Spratly Islands. These tensions came to a head at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, where U.S. Secretary of State Clinton declared, as a counter to resurgent PRC claims of the South China Sea as a “core interest”, that the U.S. had “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

The final chapter in this dispute has yet to be written.

H/T Cheng-yi Lin

To read more about the Hainan Island Incident, see Shirley A. Kan, et al., China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications, CRS Report to Congress, October 10, 2001.

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China Brief “spy games”

November 6, 2010
Taiwan is mostly mountainous in the east, but ...

Image via Wikipedia

I mentioned in the last post that I added the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief to the blogroll.  A new issue is out today:

http://twitter.com/#!/gjsamps/status/758697928171520

Today’s edition concentrated on Chinese espionage, China’s development of its rare earth (RE) industry and the decline of other nations’ RE holdings, and a recent large-scale PLA military exercise inside of China. (It did not mention the PLA Navy’s recent live-fire exercise in the South China Sea, which reportedly included Chinese marines practicing amphibious maneuvers and coordinated air operations.)

I found the espionage pieces particularly interesting.  One focused on the continuing “spy war” between China and Taiwan, which continues despite warming relations across the Taiwan Strait.  How’s the old saying go? – “There are friendly nations, but there are no friendly intelligence services.”  Too true, and I think that anyone who supposed that since China and Taiwan were making nice across the strait since Ma Ying-jeou’s election in 2008 that it naturally followed that espionage activity between the two would also fall is a bit naive.  The Ma administration’s reported 2009 decision to discontinue the recruitment of spies in China, mentioned in the article, is incredibly short-sighted and certainly has not been reciprocated by the PRC. (In fact, I would be that with improving ties, China’s intelligence services are taking full advantage of the increased ease with which they can get into Taiwan, be it via tourist groups or student exchanges.)  Just because there is a temporary rapprochement now, nothing says that China won’t break out the old “belligerence stick” and wave it this way again when they become impatient with the pace of their pursued unification, and when they do, one of the best ways to know how serious they really are about escalation could be from spies inside China that Taiwan unilaterally decided to stop recruiting – bad idea.

The other espionage piece in the report this week is about PRC efforts to infiltrate U.S. security services.  The story discussed is one that I had heard of via other media sources, but the context in which it is discussed here – trying to determine if this type of infiltration attempt is part of a larger shift in Chinese intelligence strategy away from previous  long-term efforts to use Chinese nationals towards one where they co-opt and then exploit non-Chinese American citizens who are not at the time of their recruitment in sensitive positions – is quite interesting and unique.  I think the overall conclusion is that there simply isn’t enough information to know just yet if this is indeed a major shift, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

Out of Office AutoReply

January 18, 2010

Kindle

I’m going to be on the road for the next couple weeks, so “posting will be light.”  Ha ha – like it has been heavy thus far!  I always wanted to write that, though.  I am now done with my first semester of graduate school, so I should have extra time to post things here – except that I will be conducting “TouristOps” for most of the semester break. (Classes resume after the Chinese New Year.)

Like some of the other bloggers I aim to emulate, I am going to leave some reading suggestions for you.  Here’s what I am going to have on the plane to Tokyo with me:

  1. David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers.  It has been hailed in multiple places as one of the best on the Iraq War, so I am to see for myself.  I’ve read other acclaimed accounts like Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War (if you haven’t read these two, you should), and I want to see if Finkel’s book measures up.
  2. The report “Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network” from The Information Warfare Monitor and the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission’s report  on Chinese cyberwarfare.  The recent big kerfluffle with China and Google is a neat window into the spooky world of computer network operations, and in fact is an area of research that I am very interested in.  There’s a lot of breathless, overheated stuff in the day-to-day media about cyberwarfare, but reports like these (both published last year) are a lot more objective.
  3. Earlier this month, CSIS released a new report on Taiwan Strait security called “Building Trust Across the Taiwan Strait: A Role for Military Confidence-building Measures.”  Taiwan Strait security is another one of my research interests, so this one ought to be good to.  (If you missed CNAS’s China-Taiwan report last month, then you should go ahead and fix yourself right now and read it.)
  4. If that’s not enough, then I’ll finish myself off with the latest edition of the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Asian Policy.  It’s got an interesting-looking “roundtable” piece devoted to training the next generation of Asia experts.

I can’t help but “pile on” here – if you are reading this and haven’t yet read CNAS’s other new report about fixing the intelligence effort in Afghanistan, just stop and go read it.  Excellent stuff.

Under Construction

November 30, 2009

This is the new blog Facing China.  The name comes from what I do every day when I go to class – my trip takes me right along the Taiwan Strait, and every day it reminds me about the challenges and opportunities attendant with China’s rise in stature and strength in the Asia-Pacific region and the world.  Since I am writing from Taiwan, this blog will mainly focus on Asia-Pacific strategic security, national defense, and intelligence-related issues, but I must admit that as an active-duty US Marine, I anticipate that I will serve in my nation’s wars again once I finish studies here in 2011, so I am also keeping an eye on the growing field of counterinsurgency and have an interest in history (military and otherwise) as well.  I hope this short introduction gives you an idea of what this blog aims to be.

Stay tuned for further material.


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