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FAIRBANKS, Alaska – US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will become the first member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet to visit Southeast Asia this week, seeking to emphasize the importance Washington places on fortifying ties in the region while pushing back against China
The United States has put countering China at the heart of its national security policy for years and the Biden administration has called rivalry with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.
Six months into his presidency, however, Southeast Asian countries are still looking for details of Biden’s strategy as well as his specific plans for economic, trade and military engagement with the Indo-Pacific.
“You’ll hear me talk a lot about partnerships and the value of partnerships,” Austin told reporters en route to Alaska.
“My goal is to strengthen relationships,” he said.
In a keynote speech in Singapore on Tuesday and meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines, Austin will call out aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea and stress the importance of keeping the wider region free and open.
His trip follows the first visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China on Sunday and Monday and coincide with a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to India, another important partner in U.S. efforts to counter Beijing.
Experts say Austin’s presence is important to make clear that Southeast Asia is a vital component in Biden’s efforts.
“The administration does understand that this region is critical, so that’s a big part of it: Just showing up,” said Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
An Asian diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it appeared the Biden administration was now directing its focus more firmly on Asia after addressing other global issues, such as relations with Russia and Europe.
Austin had been due to visit the region in June, but was forced to postpone due to COVID-19 restrictions in Singapore.
‘MEAT ON THE BONE’
So far the Biden administration has broadly sought to rally allies and partners to form a united front against what it says are China’s increasingly coercive economic and foreign policies.
One pillar of engagement that has been conspicuously lacking has been on the economic and trade side after Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017.
The administration has made clear it is in no rush to rejoin such a pact, which critics say would cost American jobs, but has been discussing the possibility of smaller agreements such as on digital trade.
The Pentagon has completed a study of its China policy and Austin has issued an internal directive calling for several initiatives, but few details have emerged.
The U.S. Navy has maintained a steady pattern of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and near Taiwan but these appear to have done little to discourage Beijing.
Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have rival claims to Beijing’s in the South China Sea and largely welcome a U.S. presence in the face of China’s militarization of the waterway and its vast coastguard and fishing fleet.
Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said Washington was saying “all the right things on competition” with China but there were questions about how it could “translate words into actions and investments.”
It was still unclear “what’s it’s going to look like in terms of our budget, in terms of our force posture, in terms of our investments in diplomacy and infrastructure, really putting meat on the bone,” he said.
Austin’s priority in the Philippines will be progress on renewing an agreement governing the presence of U.S. troops there, which is of vital U.S. strategic interest. A deadline for the pact’s expiration has been extended several times.
Analysts say Austin will need to strike a balance between stressing the China threat and making clear that Washington sees Southeast Asia as more than just a military theater.
“The emphasis from the region is yes, having the military around is good and welcome, but you need an economic strategy,” the Asian diplomat said.
The United States and its foreign allies on Monday has reportedly accused China of widespread malfeasance in cyberspace, including through a massive hack of Microsoft’s email system and other ransomware attacks, a dramatic escalation in the increasingly urgent attempt by the Biden administration to stave off further breaches.
In a coordinated announcement, the White House and governments in Europe and Asia identified China’s Ministry of State Security, the sprawling and secretive civilian intelligence agency, with using “criminal contract hackers” to conduct a range of destabilizing activities around the world for personal profit, including the Microsoft hack.
The administration also said China was behind a specific ransomware attack against a US target that a senior administration official said involved a “large ransom request” — and added that Chinese ransom demands have been in the “millions of dollars.”
The public disclosure of the Chinese efforts amounts to a new front in an ongoing offensive by the Biden administration to bat away cyberthreats that have exposed serious vulnerabilities in major American sectors, including energy and food production.
Still, while American officials have raised concerns with the Chinese about the behavior, the US is stopping short of applying new punishment on Beijing as part of Monday’s announcement. The official said the US was “not ruling out further actions to hold (China) accountable.” Biden said Monday he isn’t applying sanctions on China for its role in newly revealed cyber intrusions as his team continues to determine the extent of Beijing’s actions.
“They’re still determining exactly what happened. The investigation is not finished,” Biden said after an event on the economy when questioned why he wasn’t applying further punishment on China for its actions.
The extent of Chinese involvement in hiring criminal networks to invade and extort money around the world came as a surprise to the White House, officials said.
“What we found really surprising and new here was the use of criminal contract hackers to conduct this unsanctioned cyber operation and really the criminal activity for financial gain. That was really eye-opening and surprising for us,” a senior administration official said on Sunday ahead of the announcement.
On Monday, the Justice Department announced that four Chinese nationals and residents were indicted by a federal grand jury in San Diego for “a campaign to hack into the computer systems of dozens of victim companies universities and government entities” in the US and abroad between 2011 and 2018.
Three of the individuals were Hainan State Security Department officers who were “coordinating, facilitating and managing computer hackers and linguists” for front companies to conduct hacking for the “benefit of China and its state-owned and sponsored instrumentalities,” the department said. Another individual was a computer hacker who allegedly hacked into computer systems used by foreign governments, companies and universities, and created malware and supervised other hackers.
Biden said he would receive a more fulsome briefing on the situation on Tuesday morning. And he spelled out differences between China’s behavior and that emanating from Russia, which his administration has sought to punish through sanctions.
“My understanding is that the Chinese government, not unlike the Russian government, is not doing this themselves, but are protecting those who are doing it, and maybe even accommodating them being able to do it. That may be the difference,” he said.
Close links to government than Russia-based attacks
Until now, much of the White House’s public efforts have focused on Russia, including levying new sanctions and warning of more should Moscow fail to rein in criminal networks conducting ransomware attacks from inside the country.
Unlike many of the attacks emanating from Russia, however, the attempts from China to extort money or demand ransoms have closer links to the government, according to administration officials.
Those activities include “cyber-enabled extortion, crypto-jacking and theft from victims around the world for financial gain,” an official said, along with ransomware attacks against companies demanding millions of dollars.
The official said at least one American company had been targeted for a “large” ransom by hackers working in association with the Chinese intelligence service but declined to provide further details.
The attack “really raised concerns for us with regard to the behavior and, frankly, with regard to the fact that individuals related to the MSS conducted it,” the official said.
The governments also formally attributed with “high confidence” the massive hack in March of Microsoft’s Exchange email service on criminal hackers supported by the Chinese intelligence service.
Microsoft publicly linked the hack of its Exchange email service to China in March. It said four vulnerabilities in its software allowed hackers to access servers for the popular email and calendar service, and both the company and the White House advised users to immediately update their on-premises systems with software fixes.
The official said the US government wanted to assure it had high confidence in its assessment before formally attributing the hack to China. But officials also wanted to combine the announcement with details of China’s other activities, along with information like malware signatures and other indicators of compromise that would be useful for other companies at risk of being breached.
On Monday, the United States will also publish more than 50 “tactics and procedures” Chinese state-sponsored cyber hackers utilize when targeting US networks in the hopes of making vulnerable entities more prepared. The list will also include “technical mitigations to confront this threat,” the official said.
In addition to the United States, the other countries included in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing collective — the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada — will make similar announcements accusing China of engaging in “irresponsible and destabilizing behavior in cyberspace.”
Japan and the European Union will also join the announcement, as will NATO, which is the first time the defense bloc will publicly condemn China’s cyber activities.
Biden has prioritized gathering support among allies to confront China, and during his first foreign trip last month convinced leaders at the G7 and NATO to more aggressively spell out their concerns regarding Beijing’s behavior in their concluding documents. NATO’s final communiqué mentioned China for the first time.
Monday’s announcement is an extension of those efforts, officials said, singling out cyber-threats as another area of concern for the global community alongside human rights and maritime aggressions.
The official said China’s cyber-activity “poses a major threat to the US and allies’ economic and national security” and framed it as “inconsistent with (China’s) stated objectives of being seen as a responsible leader in the world.”