Since coming to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on a campaign to enhance the country’s military prowess. This has been carried out by pursuing a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, China has been investing heavily in its military infrastructure by modernizing its technological capabilities with more state-of-the-art equipment. At the same time, they have been building their influence by expanding their place as a military power in Asia, particularly Central Asia, replacing Russia as the dominant hegemon in the region.
China has engaged in various military reforms, including allowing civilian companies to invest and modernize the military technology industry. Together with a grand, national strategy to create a hyper tech-based society, the Chinese military technology industry is becoming a serious participant, especially in the field of military-use telecommunication.
Since 1999, the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) no longer supervises military technology companies, as part of an effort to eliminate military-related corruption. The Chinese State Council has therefore been able to directly exert a party-driven ideology in research, production, and sales of military equipment. Arms sales to Central Asia can be cast as a deliberate party decision, among other plans, to strategically position China to counter Russian influence at China’s doorstep.
In the 21st century, China has made a sharp departure from its traditional reliance on Russia for technology. At the breakup of the Soviet Union, Central Asia was actually one of the sources of China’s military technology. In 1998, China bought 40 Shkval torpedoes from Kazakhstan. Today, the Chinese military supplier industry is filling a market gap for cheap equipment that fits the region’s existing gear.
Since 1999, the Chinese PLA no longer supervises military technology companies as part of an effort to eliminate military-related corruption. The Chinese State Council has therefore been able to directly exert a party-driven ideology in research, production, and sales of military equipment. Arms sales to Central Asia, then, can be cast as a deliberate party decision to strategically position China, among other plans, to balance Russian influence at the Chinese doorstep (thediplomat.com/). In August of this year, China debuted its first military maritime medical aid simulation training system. The system, jointly developed by the Sixth Medical Center of the People's Liberation Army General Hospital and a number of other institutions, aims at improving medical personnel's capability of providing medical aid in naval battles (english.chinamil.com.cn/content_9599611.htm).
In preparation for potential plateau warfare, China recently used, for the first time, some of its most powerful weapons and equipment, including Type 99A main battle tanks and battlefield robots on a snow-covered plateau in combat exercises. Weapons and equipment, including Type 99A tanks and battlefield robots used for mine sweeping and reconnaissance, were deployed for the first time in a plateau (eng.chinamil.com.cn/content_9594625.htm).
China’s technology revolution has not just been for its own domestic benefit. In September 2018, Kazakhstan purchased a Y-8 a military plane, a copy of the Antonov An-12, from China’s CATIC. In January 2018, Turkmenistan purchased the QW-2 Vanguard 2, similar to the Russian 9K38 Igla, from China’s CASIC. In March 2016, a military exercise in Turkmenistan revealed a purchase of the HQ-9 air defense system, similar to the Russian S-300, from China’s CPMIEC. The HQ-9 is also reportedly present in Uzbekistan. The Soviet origins of modern Chinese military equipment make Beijing’s kit conveniently attractive for Central Asian states. And, many of its arms are designed to fit universal Soviet ammunition, such as NORINCO’s VT-4 and VN17.
In Central Asia, beyond outright donations, gas is often traded for military equipment. The HQ-9 transfer to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is part of the Chinese payment for natural gas via the Central Asia-China gas pipeline. Military equipment is further involved in the picture when in January 2015 a Chinese loan to be repaid with natural gas was provided to Turkmenistan for a purchase of arms.
In December 2017, Turkmen gas exports to China fell sharply. By February 2018, China’s domestic natural gas price jumped 40 percent. Sino-Turkmen relations seem to have worsened. In January 2019, China put Turkmenistan on a military blacklist, ceasing all future military exports to the country. Turkey was recently also blacklisted for turning down the HQ-9 deal (thediplomat.com/). China’s arms business is not relegated solely to Central Asia.
The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) has signed a contract to procure a Type 071E (Yuzhao)-class landing platform dock (LPD) from China. The deal was signed in Beijing on 9 September and is reportedly worth THB4 billion (USD130 million) (janes.com/update-thailand-signs-for-chinese-landing-platform-dock). China’s military support of these nation-states has not been solely relegated to providing weaponry and technological upgrades.
This summer, the “Cooperation-2019” China-Tajikistan joint counter-terrorism exercise was successfully completed at the Jilondi training range in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. Participating troops of both sides conducted exercises on joint reconnaissance, comprehensive control, rescue, and fire strike. The Chinese air force, special operations force, aviation units and the Tajik artillery, special operations force and mountainous infantry, cooperated closely in accordance with the instructions from the Joint Command Department and conducted precise integrated air-ground control and strike against the “terrorists”.
The Joint Command Department ordered the Chinese aviation helicopters to carry out aircraft landing with soldiers of Tajik special operations force once the targets were locked. The exercise culminated in special operations forces of both sides conducting a joint assault on the rescue area quickly by assault vehicles, and Chinese Air Force fighters, fighter-bombers, and UAVs carrying out deterrence and precision strikes against concentrated terrorist hideouts. This was but one of a series of joint operations exercises the two countries have carried out (eng.chinamil.com.cn/content_9592237.htm).
On Aug. 17 Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, met with Kim Su Kil, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army Saturday in Beijing. Highlighting the traditional friendship between China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Zhang said the Chinese military is willing to work with the DPRK side to strengthen communication and promote cooperation and mutual support, so as to contribute to the consolidation and development of bilateral relations and regional peace and stability. Kim said the DPRK side is ready to strengthen friendly exchanges between the two armed forces in various fields, mutual learning, and promoting the relations between the two countries and the two armed forces to a higher level (eng.chinamil.com.cn/content_9593174.htm).
China’s role in Central Asia is becoming more significant. The clear escalation of Chinese assertiveness in Central Asia indicates a breakdown of the assumed traditional Sino-Russian economic-military division of labor in the region. Russia has often been understood as the region’s security guarantor, while China has increasingly played a critical economic role that has now extended into a military one. Chinese military assertiveness in Asia has often been viewed as an effort to strike a balance, either with the United States, India, or other powers across the region.
While China’s military technology industry has arguably grown, Russia has put little effort into innovating its military technology industry. The close to nonexistent manufacturing sector for military parts in Russia continues to give China an upper hand in producing traditional components as well as new military-use telecommunication components.
In 2015, 186 types of Russian military equipment needed components from manufacturers in Ukraine. On top of all this, huge debt in the Russian military industry will only make cheaper Chinese alternatives more and more attractive. Although in Russia’s backyard, but increasingly a Chinese security interest, Central Asia provides a critical glance at the expansion of Beijing’s military assertiveness. (thediplomat.com/). It is inevitable that China will surpass Russia as the dominant power in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Two outcomes coming from this situation that will affect the U.S. in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia have long been seen as volatile hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. China’s growing involvement in the region will inevitably result in it becoming more invested in the security of the region including counterterrorism and stability. Since China borders so many of these countries, it will be in a geographically advantageous position to relieve the U.S. of much of the responsibility it currently assumes around the world. At a strategic security level, China can become an important ally in the fight against Islamic radicalism.
A negative perspective is that China’s encroachment into Central Asia has allowed it to replace Russia as the dominant force in the region. This gives China access to vast natural resources that it will exploit for its own purposes as well as opening up numerous additional markets for its products.
This is also dangerous because China is positioning itself as an economic alternative to the U.S. who has used sanctions as a way of dealing with hostile countries. As China expands its economic influence and develops relations with countries the U.S. is embargoing, it will erode the power of those sanctions.
In February 2019, the North Korean embassy in Madrid Spain was raided. During the raid, the group of men removed an assortment of computers, cell phones, and other media storage machines. The group suspected of this action is known as Free Joseon, a group established to oppose the North Korean regime.
Formed in 2017 Free Joseon, aka Cheollima Civil Defense (CCD), was established to support those wanting to defect from North Korea and opposed the regime of Kim Jong Un (EyeSpy, 122, 2019). On their site they define their mission:
The Provisional Government of Free Joseon certainly seeks ultimate peace and believes in dialogue over conflict when it is held between partners in good faith. Millions starved to death, hundreds of thousands of citizens in concentration camps, and hundreds of foreigners kidnapped and assassinated will attest that, unfortunately, the regime in Pyongyang has never acted in good faith and only seeks to stall while it continues to proliferate weapons of mass destruction and commit mass atrocities. The regime has never stopped developing weapons of mass destruction even while engaging with the United States since 2018. Regretfully, these empty gestures by the Kim regime serve only to deceive the world and empower an immoral criminal regime. Change must come, for both our oppressed people and for a genuine peace (www.cheollimacivildefense.org/).
Since its inception, the group has maintained a rather secretive existence. This latest action in Madrid has been seen as their most audacious action (EyeSpy, 122, 2019). Days before President Trump was set to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, a mysterious incident in Spain threatened to derail the entire high-stakes nuclear summit. In broad daylight, masked assailants infiltrated North Korea’s embassy in Madrid, tied up the staff, stole computers and mobile phones, and fled the scene in two luxury vehicles (www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/ae4208a4-c451-4886-b608-f5ac1f182d3d_story.html?noredirect=on).
Details about the mysterious attack on the North Korean embassy in Madrid suggested that the incident was more serious than first thought. According to sources close to an investigation into what happened on February 22, around 10 people carrying fake firearms entered the residential building, located in the Aravaca district in Madrid, and assaulted the eight people inside, who were a mixture of staff from the embassy and guests.
A Korean woman who managed to escape the building alerted residents thanks to her screams. Police officers who responded and were unable to understand what the woman was saying in Korean, tried to enter the building, but a man opened the door to them and told them that there was nothing going on. Minutes later, two luxury vehicles sped out of the embassy, leaving the staff and guests behind in the building and taking computers and documents with them (elpais.com/1551363460_929631.html).
El Pais, the most reliable newspaper in Spain, can bring you up to speed on the incident, which North Korea is now suddenly calling a terror attack. The embassy burglars sought information, à la Watergate. Unlike Watergate, they came by day. They invaded the embassy in a quiet residential neighborhood, assaulted the staff, tied people up, and demanded computers and files.
A British Broadcasting Corporation report says they were especially interested in the former ambassador to Madrid, Kim Hyok Chol, a confidant of Kim Jong Un. Investigators believe that the intruders were looking for ‘sensitive information regarding North Korea’s nuclear and arms program’ just days ahead of the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. (www.asiatimes.com/spain-not-satisfied-with-cia-answers-on-embassy-attack/).
Some of the documents stolen are said to comprise memos and notes related to the North Korean nuclear ambitions.
Because of this, North Korea has insisted that the robbery was orchestrated at the behest of the CIA or FBI. This speculation has only been heightened by the fact that members of the robbery were American, a former US Marine Christopher Ahn. Because of the US arrests, it has been speculated that the information stolen was turned over to American intelligence services (EyeSpy, 2019). This accusation has been made by more than just North Korea.
Spanish intelligence initially blamed two individuals connected to the CIA for the attack. A Spanish court has issued an extradition order for men alleged to have been involved in the assault. The men are accused of breaking into and entering the North Korean embassy in Madrid, taking North Korean diplomats hostage, and stealing computers, hard drives, cellphones, and encryption devices that they later handed over to the FBI.
The situation has been further complicated by the US response ─ the Department of Justice issued a wanted poster for the leader of Free Joseon. The public notification from the DOJ underscores the seriousness of the US government’s efforts to track down two Koreans sought for possible extradition to Spain under a criminal warrant issued in March by Judge José de la Mata of Spain’s high court. The very unusual move has stirred a backlash from US foreign-policy hard-liners on North Korea who say the Trump administration’s manhunt for the suspects amounts to support for that country’s 34-year-old dictator.
It has also received a controversial response from elements in the US who are dismayed by the Trump administration’s handling of the situation. The US government publicly disclosed the names of the suspects which angered supporters of the Free Joseon movement (www.thenation.com/did-the-cia-orchestrate-an-attack-on-the-north-korean-embassy-spain-cia/). It further garnered controversy when the US Justice Department’s deciding to execute warrants against US personnel that derive from criminal complaints filed by North Korea (EyeSpy, 2019).
This situation regarding the Madrid raid raises complications for the US. The use of proxy groups to carry out missions in the service of intelligence agencies is a common practice.
But, in this case, with US citizens being actively involved in such an action, and the materials obtained possibly containing information beneficial to US intelligence, even if Free Joseon takes full responsibility for this break-in.
The insinuation that the US intelligence community was involved is going to continue to playout. This situation will also compromise the Trump administration. The US has issued arrest warrants to honor an extradition that ultimately resulted from a filing made by the North Korean government and has the potential to create a serious political controversy.
The Madrid Incident, EyeSpy Magazine, Issue No. 122, 2019.