Pentagon chief heads to an Asia on edge- POLITICO | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack | #cybersecurity | #infosecurity | #hacker

With help from Quint Forgey, Daniel Lippman, Nahal Toosi, Connor O’Brien, Paul McLeary and Andy Blatchford

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Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN lifted off this morning for a 10-day visit to Asia, with a final stop in Brussels on the tail end of the trip, as Pacific allies are increasingly on edge over China’s provocative moves and a record number of North Korean missile launches this year.

This is Austin’s fourth visit to Asia as defense secretary, and reflects the Biden administration’s continued focus on the Pacific even as the war grinds on in Ukraine, a senior defense official told reporters ahead of the visit.

“We get these questions all the time whether it’s here, whether it’s the Middle East, and we continue to say we’re still here, we’re showing up,” the official said, pointing to President JOE BIDEN’s inaugural trip to the region last month. “Look at the pace of our operational and diplomatic activities. We’re still incredibly engaged and focused on Asia.”

In addition to Austin’s visit, high-level officials from the State Department will also be traveling to the Pacific later this month and next, the official said.

The dangerous new dynamics in the South China Sea may reflect China’s alarm over recent developments in the region, including the “AUKUS” technology-sharing agreement with the U.K. and Australia, as well Biden’s meeting with the other leaders of the Quad grouping in Japan last month, said RANDY SCHRIVER, a top Asia policy official in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. Beijing is clearly on a path right now of “trying to intimidate and coerce our partners,” Schriver said.

In what Australia on Monday called a “dangerous” intercept, a Chinese fighter jet cut across the front of a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft in late May. The Chinese jet released flares and chaff, some of which the RAAF aircraft ingested into its engine, Australian officials said.

Reports also emerged over the weekend that China is secretly building a port in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its navy, as satellite photos showed that Beijing’s most advanced aircraft carrier to date is nearing completion.

Meanwhile, North Korea continues to demand international attention. On June 5, Pyongyang launched eight ballistic missiles from various parts of the country, marking the largest number of such missiles ever launched in a single day by the hermit kingdom and bringing the total number of ballistic missiles launched in 2022 to 31 — a new record.

Senior DPRK officials have also recently used rhetoric that “could suggest the use of tactical nuclear weapons,” and that the nation is preparing to conduct a seventh nuclear test, U.S. Special Representative to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea SUNG KIM told reporters on Tuesday.

Against this backdrop, Austin plans to meet with the Chinese Minister of National Defense, Gen. WEI FENGHE, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore during the trip, a senior defense official confirmed ahead of the visit — the first time the two are meeting face-to-face.

But don’t expect much substance to come from the discussion. Wei is Austin’s counterpart “in terms of protocol only,” Schriver noted. In terms of authority and seniority, Austin’s true equal is actually Air Force Gen. XU QILIANG, the senior vice chair of the Central Military Commission, China’s most senior uniformed officer. Beijing’s refusal to allow the Pentagon chief to meet with Xu has long been a source of frustration, Schriver said.

China’s recent provocative actions are not in themselves unusual, said CRISTINA GARAFOLA of the RAND Corporation, but what is notable is the Pentagon chief’s continued focus on Beijing.

“There have been other cases in the past where U.S. allies and partners have faced the PRC or the PLA’s unsafe or unprofessional activities in the South China Sea, so it’s not necessarily a new development,” Garafola told NSD. “But I think it just highlights more that [Austin] is going to the region at an important time where we clearly see activities by China that go against the principles the U.S. is trying to uphold with a free and open Pacific.”

Overall, don’t expect U.S. partners in the region to publicly criticize or antagonize China at the conference, said ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Asia expert at Stanford University. The real work will be done behind the scenes, where countries will look for more military and diplomatic cooperation with the U.S. “I think if the U.S. tries to push for a more public stance that we’re on the same page, that will probably fall short,” she said.

TERROR THREAT WARNING: On the heels of a series of horrific mass shootings in recent weeks and ahead of the midterm elections this fall, the United States continues to be in a “heightened threat environment” that is only going to get more “dynamic,” the Department of Homeland Security warned in its latest National Terrorism Advisory bulletin issued Tuesday morning.

The bulletin warned in particular of “copycat attacks” in the wake of last month’s massacre at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, fueled by online forums harboring violent extremist content. Some conspiracy theorists have seized on the shooting to “spread disinformation and incite grievances, including claims it was a government-staged event meant to advance gun control measures,” according to the bulletin.

“Individuals in online forums that routinely promulgate domestic violent extremist and conspiracy theory-related content have praised the May 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and encouraged copycat attacks,” according to the advisory, which also notes that the suspect in the grocery store attack in Buffalo, New York, in May “claimed he was motivated by racist, anti-Black, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”

The expected Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights, as well as the coming midterm elections, could also fuel additional violence by domestic extremists, the bulletin notes.

“In the coming months, we expect the threat environment to become more dynamic as several high-profile events could be exploited to justify acts of violence against a range of possible targets,” the advisory reads.

RUSSIAN FULBRIGHTERS: More than two dozen Russian Fulbright students are calling on the State Department to waive its two-year home residency requirement and extend their legal status in the U.S. to avoid possible persecution in their home country, according to a letter obtained by our own JOSEPH GEDEON.

The letter, signed by 31 Russian Fulbrighters who have asked to keep their identities hidden for fear of retribution, notes that students are concerned they may be targeted by Russia’s “foreign agent” law should they return. “The law has already been used to target journalists, activists and ordinary citizens with accusations of espionage,” the letter reads. “As beneficiaries of funding from the U.S. Department of State, on our return to Russia, we also would be a potential target to the accusations of treason for voicing our opinion on the war in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the war rages on as the battle for Severodonetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region proves to be a key strategic battleground. Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY visited a neighboring town a day ago and noted that Ukrainian forces were outnumbered, despite having killed Russian Gen. ROMAN KUTUZOV. As Ukraine awaits new weapons from the West, Moscow continues to hit Ukraine’s eastern flank and bolster its own sanction list to include more than 60 Americans.

Back in the U.S. the State Department told POLITICO that the health and safety of its exchange participants are its top priority and that there are other options that could help Fulbrighters remain in the country.

“While it is a legal requirement of the J-1 visa that certain exchange participants return and be physically present in their home country for two years following the conclusion of their program, this only applies to those who have concluded a program and wish to return to the United States for permanent residency or as a temporary worker,” a State official said. “Participants may apply to enter the United States in other visa categories without having to complete the two-year home return. Participants may also apply for a waiver of the two-year home return requirement.”

Attorney GREG SISKIND, who is representing the Russian Fulbrighters, finds State’s response to be counter-intuitive, telling POLITICO that it “bypasses our whole sanctions regime and benefits Russia by sending them people trained at our top institutions.”

There are 102 Russians and 39 Ukrainians in the United States on active Fulbright grants as of mid-May, according to the State Department.

BOLSONARO’S ULTIMATUM: The drama surrounding the lead-up to Biden’s Summit of the Americas just won’t stop. The Associated Press reports that Biden became so worried that his Brazilian counterpart JAIR BOLSONARO would skip the event that he dispatched a close adviser to personally deliver the president’s invitation. But Bolsonaro’s answer came with a catch, the outlet reports.

“Bolsonaro said he would attend the Summit of the Americas only if Biden granted him a private meeting and also refrained from confronting him over some of the most contentious issues between the two men, the officials told The Associated Press.”

“He didn’t want any criticism over deforestation in the Amazon or warnings about his questioning of the Brazilian electoral system’s reliability as he prepares to campaign for another term, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.”

The two leaders are set to meet one-on-one this Thursday, the outlet reports, but it remains to be seen whether Biden curtails his criticism. Bolsonaro was a close ally of Biden’s predecessor, former U.S. President DONALD TRUMP.

Bolsonaro’s presence at the summit lends the event legitimacy after the White House excluded three major Western hemisphere nations — Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — prompting Mexican leader ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR to also sit it out.

NORAD’S REJUVENATION: Prime Minister JUSTIN TRUDEAU and Defense Minister ANITA ANAND will tour the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s headquarters today in Colorado Springs, a visit that comes with Canada talking up the need to better protect the continent.

— On the itinerary: Trudeau and Anand will take in a briefing from NORAD officials and observe a demonstration at Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station. They will also meet with Canadian Armed Forces personnel at NORAD.

— Conversation starters: Anand was pressed late Monday for specifics about the government’s spending plans for continental defense and NORAD’s modernization when she appeared before a parliamentary committee. She would only say April’s budget included C$6 billion in additional defense investments, an amount that includes a new, unspecified amount of cash for continental defense. The extra money is in addition to previous commitments totaling C$252 million, over five years, in last year’s budget toward NORAD modernization as well as continental and Arctic defense.

“We will be continuing to come forward with a plan to modernize NORAD,” Anand told the House national defense committee.

— Work underway: She was later asked if Trudeau intended to make any announcements during the NORAD visit. Anand sidestepped the question, replying that she’s in frequent contact with her U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

She added that she and Austin have been building on work that began last year “in terms of enhancing command and control, enhancing surveillance, and ensuring the maintenance and upgrading of the systems that protect our continent.”

— What’s next: Anand heads to Singapore on Thursday to participate in the Shangri-La Dialogue with Chief of the Defense Staff General WAYNE EYRE and Associate Deputy Minister of National Defense STEFANIE BECK.

“I will be discussing Canada’s Indo-Pacific presence, and the importance of our military exercise with allies and partners such as Australia, the United States and Japan, including the sail through of the Taiwanese strait that we undertook in 2021 with the United States,” she said.

IT’S TUESDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.

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EMERGENCY LANDING IN THE PACIFIC: A Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet crash-landed at a Honolulu airport after its landing gear didn’t deploy, according to Hawaii News Now. But our own LARA SELIGMAN reports that it was actually an American pilot flying the plane. Details are still emerging, but it looks like the U.S. Air Force pilot was delivering the plane — either a new aircraft or one that had just undergone maintenance — from the U.S. to Taiwan, she reports.

While the pilot survived and no one else was injured, this is the second incident involving the Tawainese air force in a week and the third this year. On May 31, the pilot of an air force trainer jet died after crashing in southern Taiwan, hours after 30 Chinese warplanes were spotted in the vicinity by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. In January, an F-16V crashed in the sea off Taiwan’s west coast, killing its pilot.

Tensions are rising between China and Taiwan, which the Chinese Ministry of National Defense has called “part of China” in a recent press event. Taiwan has adamantly declared itself independent of China, and the country bought 66 F-16V new fighter jets from the U.S. during the Trump administration, set to be delivered by 2026.

INSIDE JOB: A blast that injured four U.S. service members at a base in northern Syria in April is now being investigated as an insider attack, CNN’s BARBARA STARR reported.

What was first thought to be indirect fire consistent with what has been carried out by militia groups in the region turned into “the deliberate placement of explosive charges by an unidentified individual(s) at an ammunition holding area and shower facility,” according to a military statement in April. The possible suspect is a U.S. service member who acted in the middle of the night to place “military grade” explosives, according to Starr’s reporting. The service members were evaluated for minor injuries.

There are currently hundreds of U.S. troops in Syria as part of the military’s joint task force “Operation Inherent Resolve,” an ongoing campaign against the Islamic State.

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