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THE WEEK IN STRATEGY

Summaries and Links to This Week’s Curated Strategy Articles

 

April 1-5, 2024, in Strategy Cyber Threats from China, Domestic Political Issues in Vietnam and the Philippines, and the Iranian and Israeli Conflict.


















UNITED STATES

‘Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’:

U.S. Officials Warn of Increased Cyberthreats Washington prepares for a worst-case scenario of attacks on critical infrastructure.

By Rishi Iyengar

Foreign Policy – April 1, 2024

Summary:

The article details the escalating cyber threats posed by China, Russia, and Iran to U.S. infrastructure, as well as the efforts of U.S. officials to prepare for and mitigate these threats. It begins by highlighting a coordinated effort by the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand that resulted in indictments and sanctions against Chinese government-linked hackers. These hackers were accused of targeting foreign officials and companies for espionage and critical U.S. infrastructure, signaling an alarming shift in China's cyber tactics towards potential destructive or disruptive attacks.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) defines critical infrastructure sectors broadly, encompassing energy, defense, transportation, and more. The emphasis is on the shift in Chinese cyber activities from espionage to the potential disruption of these critical sectors. This shift is particularly concerning given the decentralization and vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructure, much of which is managed by private entities with outdated security systems. Also highlighted are Russia and Iran’s recent ransomware attacks and system breaches. Iyengar explains the "everything everywhere all at once" scenario of multiple, simultaneous attacks on critical infrastructure, highlighting the necessity of preparedness among the American people and infrastructure operators.

To counter these threats, the Biden administration has prioritized cybersecurity, advocating for minimum cybersecurity standards across critical sectors and stressing the importance of updating and upgrading legacy systems. Efforts are underway to bolster both domestic defenses and international cyber partnerships, with more than 60 countries joining the U.S. in its International Counter Ransomware Initiative. The administration also acknowledges the role of offensive cyber operations in this strategy, aiming to integrate them into broader geopolitical goals.

Link:

Bottom Line:

The article's central point is the urgent need for enhanced cybersecurity measures to protect U.S. critical infrastructure against increasing and evolving cyber threats from China, Russia, and Iran. It underscores the importance of national and international cooperation, regulatory enforcement, and defensive and offensive cybersecurity strategies to ensure the resilience and safety of critical infrastructure systems in the face of these growing challenges.


 

UNITED STATES


China’s Advancing Efforts to Influence the U.S. Election Raise Alarms

China has adopted some of the same misinformation tactics that

Russia used ahead of the 2016 election, researchers and

government officials say.

By Tiffany Hsu and Steven Lee Myers

New York Times – April 1, 2024

Summary:

This article reveals China's intricate and alarming effort to influence American political dynamics ahead of the upcoming U.S. election. According to researchers and government officials, covert Chinese online accounts have begun to impersonate American supporters of former President Donald J. Trump. These accounts promote divisive conspiracy theories, attack President Biden, and inflame partisan tensions. This activity marks a significant and potentially more aggressive shift in Beijing’s approach to meddling in U.S. politics, aiming to undermine confidence in the Biden administration and exploit the country’s partisan divides.

Previously, China's efforts at influencing U.S. public opinion were more focused on promoting its own propaganda and denigrating democracy, with less success in directly engaging with American voters or affecting political discourse. However, the recent findings suggest a more sophisticated and subtle operation, using tactics reminiscent of those employed by Russia ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. These include creating fake accounts that appear to be real Americans and engaging in English-language discourse to spread misinformation and foster division.

Researchers have linked these activities to a known Chinese government-affiliated network called Spamouflage. The network previously focused on pro-Beijing content in Mandarin. The network has now shifted to producing content in English, targeting American political divisions. Some of these efforts have attracted genuine engagement from actual users, indicating a more successful penetration of American social media ecosystems than previous attempts.

The American government has noted these efforts. A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence highlighted China’s expanding campaigns to undermine U.S. leadership and democracy and extend Beijing's influence. This marks a significant concern for U.S. national security, given the potential impact on the democratic process and public trust.

Link:

Bottom Line:

The article's central point is the alarming evolution of China's strategies to influence U.S. political discourse and elections. By adopting tactics that mimic those used by Russia in 2016, China appears to be actively working to sow division, undermine confidence in democratic institutions, and potentially shift U.S. policy in its favor. This development signals a more aggressive and covert approach to foreign influence by Beijing, raising significant concerns for the integrity of the U.S. electoral process and the broader implications for U.S.-China relations and global democracy.


 

ASIA PACIFIC

Will Vietnam’s Political Turmoil Shake Up Foreign Investment?

The president’s abrupt resignation suggests uncertainty, but it should not sow doubt about Hanoi’s economy or engagement with the world.

By Dien Luong

Foreign Policy – April 1, 2024

Summary:

The article from Foreign Policy discusses the political landscape in Vietnam following President Vo Van Thuong's unexpected resignation, exploring its potential impact on foreign investment. The president's resignation, occurring amidst a significant anti-corruption campaign and only a year after his predecessor's departure, has injected a degree of uncertainty into Vietnam's otherwise stable political environment. This political turmoil comes at a time when Vietnam has been successfully attracting foreign investment, positioning itself as a preferred alternative to China for global businesses.

The article outlines how the recent political events, particularly the resignation of two presidents in a relatively short span, might be perceived as a warning sign by foreign investors who value the predictability and stability of Vietnam's governance. The anti-corruption campaign, while strengthening the Vietnamese Communist Party's (VCP) internal discipline, has led to bureaucratic stagnation and a cautious approach among officials, further complicating the investment climate.

Despite these challenges, Vietnam's strategic importance, economic potential, and role as a manufacturing and export hub will likely continue drawing strong foreign direct investment. The government's target for economic growth and its efforts to maintain investor confidence underscore the country's aspirations to become the next "Asian tiger" economy. Moreover, the swift appointment of Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan as acting president and the efforts to project stability suggests that Vietnam's leadership is aware of the importance of maintaining a favorable environment for investment.

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Bottom Line:

The article's central point is that, despite the political upheaval and the uncertainties it brings, Vietnam's fundamental attractiveness to foreign investors remains intact. The country's strategic geopolitical positioning, economic growth targets, and the resilience of its political system suggest that Vietnam will continue to be an important player in the global economy. A long-term perspective is essential for foreign investors and international partners to navigate the current political landscape and capitalize on Vietnam's ongoing economic transformation.


 

ASIA PACIFIC

A Family Feud in the Philippines Has Beijing and Washington on Edge

Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. are battling over the country’s future.

By Nick Aspinwall

Foreign Policy – March 28, 2024

Summary:

There is an escalating political feud between former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a conflict that has significant implications for domestic politics and international relations, particularly with the United States and China.

Rodrigo Duterte, known for his combative style and controversial policies, notably his "war on drugs," has publicly criticized Marcos Jr. since leaving office. Their alliance began to unravel, with Duterte accusing Marcos of being a "drug addict" and suggesting the possibility of a military coup. Duterte also advocated for the independence of Mindanao, his home region, further straining their relationship. Marcos Jr. has maintained a relatively calm demeanor in response, dismissing Duterte's accusations and warning against secessionist attempts.

The feud is notable because Marcos Jr. won the presidency with a significant boost from an alliance with Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, who currently serves as Vice President. Despite their political partnership, Duterte has expressed regret that his daughter did not seek the presidency and has been critical of Marcos Jr.'s leadership. Marcos Jr.'s shift in foreign policy is a key aspect of their conflict. Unlike Duterte, who sought closer ties with China, Marcos Jr. has reasserted the Philippines' long-standing alliance with the United States. Beijing and Washington closely watch this pivot as it affects their regional strategic interests, especially in the South China Sea disputes.

At the heart of their disagreement is a proposal to amend the Philippine Constitution, introduced during Marcos Jr.'s presidency, which Duterte opposes. Duterte fears that changes to the political system could undermine his family's political legacy and his safety, given the ongoing International Criminal Court investigation into his administration's human rights abuses.

Link:

Bottom Line:

The article's central point is that the deepening rift between Duterte and Marcos Jr. is more than a mere political spat; it's a struggle over the direction of the Philippines' future, internally and in its dealings with major global powers. The feud has domestic implications, particularly concerning Duterte's legacy and potential legal repercussions for his actions in office. Internationally, it influences the Philippines' foreign policy stance amidst the strategic rivalry between the United States and China. This conflict underscores the complex interplay between personal politics, national governance, and international diplomacy in shaping the country's trajectory.


 

MIDDLE EAST

Israel Blamed for Attack Killing Iranian General in Damascus

Missile strike hit Iranian diplomatic building in Syrian capital, Syria and Iran say, risking an escalation of hostilities

By Jared Malsin and Aresu Eqbali

Wall Street Journal - April 1, 2024

Summary:

The Wall Street Journal article reports on an Israeli missile attack on an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus, Syria, which resulted in the death of a senior Iranian general, potentially escalating the longstanding shadow war between Israel and Iran. This incident marks a significant development in the conflict, as Iran and Syria have accused Israel of the attack, raising the possibility of further hostilities.

The attack killed General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior leader of Iran's elite Quds Force, along with seven other members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and diplomatic staff. Zahedi was instrumental in managing Iranian paramilitary operations in Syria and Lebanon. This operation signifies a possible shift in the dynamic of the covert conflict, with Israel taking more direct action against Iran's network in the region, which has been designed to strike adversaries without direct confrontation.

Iran and Israel have engaged in a covert war across the Middle East, with Israel targeting Iranian and allied militia positions and Iran being blamed for attacks on Israeli interests. This shadow war has intensified amid the ongoing war in Gaza, with increased exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia.

The article suggests that Monday's strike represents a new phase in the undeclared war, with Israel sending a message that it will confront Iran's forward-defense strategy more aggressively. The attack has heightened tensions, with Iran threatening retaliation and raising concerns about the potential for a broader regional conflict. The killing of a high-ranking Iranian military leader in a foreign country underscores the seriousness of the situation and the risk of miscalculation by either side, leading to wider hostilities.

Link:

Bottom Line:

The article’s central point is the potential escalation of the shadow war between Israel and Iran following the Israeli missile attack in Damascus, which resulted in the death of a senior Iranian general. This incident highlights the increasing risks of a broader conflict as both nations take more aggressive actions against each other, moving the covert war into a more open and potentially dangerous phase.


 

MIDDLE EAST

Tehran’s Proxies

The Morning Report

By David Leonhardt

The New York Times – April 4, 2024

Summary:

This report discusses the evolving dynamics and implications of Iran’s Axis of Resistance, a network of Iran-backed groups across the Middle East. This alliance, which includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and others, is dedicated to reducing U.S. influence in the region and aims to eliminate the state of Israel. The name "Axis of Resistance" contrasts with the "Axis of Evil" term used by former President George W. Bush in 2002 to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

The article highlights the October 7 incident as a turning point that escalated tensions and threatened to change the dynamic between Iran, its Axis of Resistance, and its enemies. On this day, Hamas executed the deadliest terrorist attack in Israel's history, vowing to continue until Israel was destroyed. This act drew Israel into a war in Gaza that has seen extensive destruction and a significant loss of life, with Hezbollah and the Houthis also engaging in hostilities in support of Hamas.

Iran's involvement in the conflict has been somewhat indirect. Despite praising the October 7 attack, Iranian officials have indicated they did not help plan it, and Iran, Israel, and the United States have been trying to avoid a wider war. However, due to Tehran's financial and military support, the inherent connection between Iran and the Axis groups blurs the lines of distinction and complicates the geopolitical situation.

The recent Israeli bombing of an Iranian Embassy building in Syria, which killed several Iranian officials, marks a significant escalation and demonstrates Israel's increasing willingness to target Iranian interests directly. Iran has vowed to retaliate, raising concerns among U.S. officials about the potential targeting of Americans and Israelis. The fear is that an Axis group might act beyond the intentions of its Iranian sponsors, further escalating the conflict.

The article points out that escalation to a full-scale war is not inevitable despite the heightened tensions. Both Iran and Israel have strong incentives to avoid such a scenario, and there is recent precedent for managing retaliation in a way that does not spiral into wider violence, as seen in the U.S. killing of Major General Qassim Suleimani in 2020.

Link:

Email, not a link

Bottom Line:

The article's central point is the Middle East's precarious and increasingly volatile situation stemming from the Axis of Resistance's activities and Iran's support for these groups. The October 7 attack has intensified the longstanding conflict, bringing the region closer to a broader confrontation. The interplay between direct attacks, retaliatory actions, and the efforts to avoid a full-scale war highlights the complex and dangerous nature of the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.


 

MIDDLE EAST

A Homeland Warning About ISIS-K

Contrary to President Biden’s assurances, the U.S. has little visibility into Afghanistan as it becomes a sanctuary for ISIS-Khorasan.

By The Editorial Board

Wall Street Journal - March 31, 2024

Summary:

The article from The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board focuses on the increasing threat of ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province), particularly concerning its potential to exploit the current situation in Afghanistan as a sanctuary for launching attacks against the U.S. and its allies. Retired General Frank McKenzie, who was in command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan during President Biden's withdrawal of troops, expressed concern that the threat from Islamic extremists, notably ISIS-K, has not diminished but may be growing.

General McKenzie emphasized that the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan relieved pressure on ISIS-K, allowing the group to strengthen and potentially increase its capabilities to target the U.S., its partners, and other nations. This resurgence poses a significant security challenge, contradicting President Biden's assurances that the U.S. would maintain over-the-horizon capabilities to monitor and counter terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan post-withdrawal.

The article highlights a critical gap in U.S. intelligence and operational capabilities within Afghanistan, making it difficult to monitor and respond to threats from ISIS-K and similar groups. Seth Jones from the Center for Strategic and International Studies echoed General McKenzie's concerns, pointing out the limitations in U.S. visibility and strike capability within the region.

The Biden Administration's reluctance to discuss this vulnerability publicly, especially in an election year, and the potential for ISIS-K to exploit the porous southern U.S. border to infiltrate terrorists into the U.S. adds another layer of concern. The article suggests that downplaying the threat and capability gaps does not contribute to enhancing U.S. security.

Link:

Bottom Line:

The central point of the article is to highlight the evolving and possibly escalating threat posed by ISIS-K and other Islamic extremist groups following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite previous successes in counterterrorism efforts, the current situation necessitates renewed attention and strategy adjustments to address the lack of visibility and strike capability in Afghanistan, ensuring that the U.S. homeland remains protected against potential terrorist attacks.



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