- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2019

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

President Trump’s new national security adviser said China must keep its promise to permit Hong Kong to keep its current system in the face of widespread unrest and strongly denied Beijing’s charges that the U.S. was secretly instigating the pro-democracy demonstrations.

For the first time since the protests broke out months ago, China last week began using some People’s Liberation Army troops outside their garrison in the colony, a sign that the troops could be preparing for a military crackdown. Hong Kong police on Monday were locked in a tense standoff with hundreds of demonstrators who were occupying a major university in the city.


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Robert O’Brien, the Trump administration’s former top hostage negotiator who was named national security adviser in September, told The Washington Times in an interview that the violence in Hong Kong was testing China’s frequent claims that it respected international agreements.

“One of the claims the PRC regularly makes is that they’re scrupulous in abiding by their treaty commitments,” he said. “We call on the PRC to abide by its treaty commitments to the United Kingdom with respect to Hong Kong. We’re obviously monitoring the situation closely and hope for the best.



“Our hearts go out to the people of Hong Kong,” Mr. O’Brien said. “It’s very difficult to watch the violence that’s taking place in Hong Kong.”

In the wide-ranging interview late last week, Mr. O’Brien said Mr. Trump still hopes to sign a fair, “enforceable” preliminary trade deal with China by the end of the year; said the administration will keep the pressure on Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies, which is seeking to corner the market for emerging 5G telecommunications technology.

He also revealed that the successful U.S. military raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month produced valuable intelligence that resulted in additional U.S. strikes against the terrorist group, including some that remain secret.

As the Hong Kong crisis intensified, Mr. O’Brien forcefully rejected Chinese government charges that the United States is secretly fomenting the protests. Pro-democracy activists have been waving American flags and flags of other democratic nations during mass rallies and demonstrations.

“The only role we have in all of these situations is serving as what Ronald Reagan called us: the beacon of democracy, the beacon of freedom, the beacon of liberty,” he said.

“It is no surprise that folks that are oppressed and who are out in the streets yearning for freedom look to the United States,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We are, again, as Ronald Reagan said, the last great hope for democracy. We are not involved in the protests. We know that the people who are out protesting would like to live in a country that is governed the way the United States is.”

Mr. O’Brien said China should honor its promise to Hong Kong to allow its British-derived political and economic system to continue under an agreement with Britain.

Sea battle

On another source of tension between Washington and Beijing, Mr. O’Brien rejected frequent Chinese claims to sovereign control of up to 90% of the strategic South China Sea.

“Let’s make one thing very clear: The South China Sea is not Chinese territory,” he said. “They talk about the South China Sea the way we talk about Lake Tahoe. It’s not Lake Tahoe. It’s a major swath of the Pacific Ocean. It’s international waters under any definition of what international waters are.”

He added that there was no legal or historical basis to China’s Nine-Dash Line, the purported extent of China’s control of the sea in the face of claims from the Philippines, Vietnam and other regional powers.

Beginning in April 2018, China began installing anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on some of the disputed islands in the sea, which Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised the United States would not happen. Several states in the region in addition to China have claims to the islands.

“The idea that you just send in the Chinese navy to take over other nations’ economic zones or territorial waters, that is not right and it is not fair,” he said. “China is a very wealthy country. It is a very powerful country. It does not need to increase its wealth or power at the expense of its poorer and smaller neighbors.”

U.S. forces engaged in stepped-up warship and aircraft passages through the sea are prepared to defend themselves from the Chinese missiles, Mr. O’Brien said.

“No. 1, the Chinese said that they would not militarize the islands,” he said. “They said that they were building up those islands for humanitarian, disaster-relief purposes and for maritime safety. Now there anti-aircraft and anti-surface vessel missiles and runways for fighter jets on those islands, which is not helpful. First, it violates China’s word and, second, it destabilizes the region.”

Regardless, the United States “is not going to be intimidated by the military installations on those islands,” Mr. O’Brien said.

“We are more than capable of defending ourselves against whatever systems are on those islands,” he said. “The United States will sail in international waters and will not cede its rights under international maritime law.”

The ‘head of the snake’

Mr. O’Brien’s short tenure has already been part of the Trump administration’s biggest intelligence and security successes: the raids that killed al-Baghdadi and a top associate and dealt a major blow to ISIS.

The NSC chief said taking out terrorists leaders such as al-Baghdadi is like cutting “the head off the snake” of Salafist terrorism.

“We got Baghdadi. We followed up with a number of strikes, some of them have been made public, some have not. So we are trying to degrade the network,” he said, adding that “there have been important operations that resulted from the exploitation of the site.”

On Chinese cyberattacks and intellectual property theft, estimated by the Trump administration to have cost American companies $250 billion to $600 billion annually, Mr. O’Brien said he is hopeful China will halt the theft and begin to understand that “all that does is bring shame on the Chinese nation.”

The Chinese people are smart, industrious and capable of inventing their own products and creating an innovation-based society, he said.

“To build Chinese success on the back of American entrepreneurs or European entrepreneurs is not fair,” Mr. O’Brien said. “It needs to stop. The industrial espionage has had a serious economic impact on the United States and on our allies, and even on folks that are not our allies.”

China also has been illegally obtaining Russian technology, he said.

“The president has made this a big issue. We are hopeful that the Chinese will change their ways on this front. I think that the phase 1 trade negotiations which cover technology and intellectual property will improve the situation dramatically,” Mr. O’Brien said.

On Chinese efforts to control 5G technology and the links between companies such as Huawei and China’s intelligence and security services, Mr. O’Brien said at the White House, “we talk about 5G every day.”

“We’re concerned about it,” he said. “We do not believe the United States or its allies should be relying on a state-owned enterprise, Huawei, that has close to ties to the Chinese Communist Party for our telecommunications infrastructure.”

An international 5G infrastructure built with Huawei equipment would “create unlimited opportunities for Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft,” he said.

Some European countries have resisted U.S. pressure and agreed to allow Huawei to participate in their national 5G networks.

“We are surprised that countries are willing to put their citizens’ data, the most private personal data, at risk of being exploited without limit by the Chinese Communist Party. So this is an issue that we raise with our allies at every opportunity,” he said.

A streamlined NSC

Mr. O’Brien, a lawyer by training, has made streamlining the NSC bureaucracy a priority.

Under President Barack Obama, the NSC staff expanded dramatically. Critics have blamed damaging leaks of secret and confidential presidential meetings on Obama holdovers working on the NSC staff.

The so-called Ukraine whistleblower who triggered the current impeachment proceedings in the House is believed to be an Obama holdover on the NSC staff sent from the CIA.

Mr. O’Brien said 40 to 45 NSC detailees have been sent back to their originating agencies under his reorganization plan.

“The NSC staff was 12 policy professionals when President Kennedy confronted the then-Soviet Union, over the Cuban missile crisis,” he noted.

Under President George W. Bush, the NSC staff increased to around 100 people to handle multiple conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.

Under the Obama administration, the NSC staff ballooned to more than 200 people. Critics said the expansion was an attempt to create small versions of the State Department and Defense Department within the White House.

“The NSC is a coordinating body,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I am trying to get us back to a lean and efficient staff that can get the job done, can coordinate with our interagency partners and make sure the president receives the best advice he needs to make the decisions necessary to keep the American people safe. I just don’t think that we need the numbers of people that it expanded to under the last administration to do this job right.”

Mr. O’Brien has sought to promote people from within the NSC staff, including his two deputies: Matt Pottinger, an Asia specialist, and Victoria Coates, a Middle East analyst.

Several career Foreign Service and State Department officials also have been brought into the NSC.

“So we’re trying to put together a very, very professional, solid management leadership team,” he said. “I call it a leadership more than a management team.”

Mr. O’Brien said the NSC staff should not be a final destination for government officials.

“Most people who have returned home had been here for a year,” he said. “When they return to the Department of State or Defense or Homeland Security, they will be better Foreign Service officers, better military officers, better Homeland Security officials because they spent time here at the White House.

“We are all serving here for a relatively short period of time,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The NSC should not be a career position. That is not how it was designed, and that is not how we are going to operate it.”

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