NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, passed by Congress on Wednesday, contains a ban on Pentagon funding of any work in China by the controversial New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO that worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on research to make bat coronaviruses more infectious to humans.
The funding prohibition followed concerns that the Pentagon may have funded EcoHealth work in China as part of its Defense Threat Reduction Agency contracts. The ban on funding can be waived by the Pentagon if the waiver is explained in writing to Congress.
EcoHealth Alliance did not respond to a request for comment.
A report on the defense bill by the House Armed Services Committee said the panel was directing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to report to Congress by Jan. 1 describing all defense contracts with EcoHealth and its affiliates, and to disclose whether any funds went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is at the center of a global controversy over whether the COVID-19 virus sprang naturally from an animal host or through the work done at the lab.
The committee also sought details on any projects that were funded by the Pentagon in China and whether classified defense projects were carried out with the group.
In May, Defense Department officials questioned during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on funding for the EcoHealth Alliance, said they were not aware of any such funding. However, the Pentagon has provided nearly $40 million to EcoHealth Alliance for research.
Rhys Williams, acting director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Brandi Vann, acting assistant defense secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, testified that they were unable to find any funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from funds paid to EcoHealth.
Mr. Williams said that, “to the best of our knowledge,” no Pentagon funds went to China.
The State Department revealed in a fact sheet made public in January that the WIV engaged in secret biological weapons research with the Chinese military. Chinese officials have denied the WIV engaged in military work or that the lab had anything to do with the origins of the coronavirus.
In addition to its Pentagon funding, EcoHealth was also funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which provided $3.7 million in funding from 2014 to 2019, and the National Institutes of Health, which provided $2.5 million between 2009 and 2012. The NIAID funds went to a program called “understanding the risk of bat coronavirus emergence.”
EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak worked closely with WIV virologist Shi Zhengli, dubbed the “Bat Woman of Wuhan” for her work on bat viruses.
Mr. Daszak is an outspoken critic of the Wuhan lab transmission theory and took part of the World Health Organization team that investigated the virus origin in China last year. The joint WHO-Chinese team concluded in a report that the lab theory “extremely unlikely” and not worth pursuing further.
Mr. Daszak could not be reached for comment.
The WHO and U.S. intelligence community have since insisted the origin question remains open and said a laboratory origin for the pandemic is one of two likely theories. The other is a leap from animal to humans.
Space Force to upgrade ASAT jammers overseas
The Pentagon recently disclosed ordering upgrades for 16 Counter Communications Systems (CCS), the first offensive space weapon in the Space Force.
The CCS Block 10.2 upgrades will be used to disrupt foreign satellite links during military operations, with some of the systems deployed at secret locations overseas. The contract with the L3Harris Technologies for $125 million will upgrade the Space Force’s first publicly announced offensive space weapon that can shut down adversary satellite communications in protecting U.S. military operations.
The Pentagon announced the contract Oct. 22 for what it calls a ground-based, deployable electronic warfare capabilities targeting satellite communications, early warning and propaganda system.
Current systems operate at Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado; Vandenberg Space Force Base, California and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The notice also said the systems will operate at “classified deployed locations outside the continental U.S.” The overseas locations were not identified but likely include Guam, the major U.S. military hub in the western Pacific.
The systems were last upgraded in 2019 and the first deployment was announced in 2020.
“Successful space operations depend on dominating the electromagnetic spectrum,” said Ed Zoiss, president of Space and Airborne Systems for L3Harris. “Denying our enemies the ability to use their space assets protects U.S. war fighter operations.”
Blinken calls for countering Chinese aggression
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China this week that the United States is pushing back against “aggressive actions” by Beijing in Asia and elsewhere.
Mr. Blinken, however, sought to soften the U.S. tone of its criticism of Beijing by asserting in a major policy speech in Jakarta that the American push to defend democracy and the current rules-based global order is not aimed at China.
“Let me be clear about one thing: the goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down,” he said. “Rather, it’s to protect the right of all countries to choose their own path, free from coercion, free from intimidation.”
The secretary of state said U.S. policy is not a contest between a U.S.-centric region or one dominated by China, but is instead trying to cement rights and agreements that have kept the peace in Asia for decades.
“That’s why there is so much concern, from northeast Asia to southeast Asia, and from the Mekong River to the Pacific Islands, about Beijing’s aggressive actions, claiming open seas as their own, distorting open markets through subsidies to its state-run companies, denying the exports or revoking deals for countries whose policies it does not agree with, engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities,” Mr. Blinken.
States throughout the region want China to alter its aggressive behavior. The U.S. Navy has conducted numerous “freedom of navigation” voyages in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s claims.
Mr. Blinken stated that “Beijing’s aggressive actions there threaten the movement of more than $3 trillion worth of commerce every year.”
Five years earlier an international tribunal issued a “unanimous and legally binding decision” that rejected China‘s expansive South China Sea maritime claims.
“We and other countries, including South China Sea claimants, will continue to push back on such behavior,” Mr. Blinken said. “It’s also why we have an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, consistent with our longstanding commitments.”
He did not elaborate on the Chinese military’s increasing threats to Taiwan, which is emerging as the most critical flash point for a potential conflict with China.
China launches war games in South China Sea, near India
China‘s military kicked off large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea with live-fire naval drills near Hainan Island.
The war games involved forces moving out in three directions from the large island in the northern part of the disputed waterway.
Further east, India’s Hindustan Times reported Wednesday that People’s Liberation Army forces conducted a nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare drill in Tibet in late November, including large numbers of troops and armored assault vehicles designed for chemical warfare.
Chinese state media said the South China Sea combat training was being carried out in preparation for “possible amphibious landing missions on islands.”
Tensions remain high in the sea after the United States announced last month that Chinese efforts to block supplies to a Philippines military outpost near Second Thomas Shoal could trigger military action under a U.S.-Philippines defense treaty.
The live-fire drills were disclosed in navigation closure area announcements for zones northeast, northwest and southwest of Hainan, a major military hub for the People’s Liberation Army.
The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet Global Times reported that the three practice areas may indicate “the PLA is using Hainan to simulate the island of Taiwan.”
Senior Defense and State Department officials told Congress last week that China is actively preparing for military action against Taiwan.
Global Times reported that coinciding with the drills a U.S. Air Force RC-135W reconnaissance aircraft carried out a mission near the southeast coastline of China, including Hainan Island.
The Hainan Island war games followed another recent PLA exercise involving live-fire drills by three warships in the South China Sea. On Tuesday, five PLA aircraft, including fighters and anti-submarine warfare planes, entered Taiwan’s air defense zone south of the island nation.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.