The Love Fest

Under China’s new leader, the People’s Liberation Army is showing rare signs of friendliness toward the United States. Can the new tone prevent a war?

BEIJING — Later this month, over four days that are yet to be disclosed, the most important generals in both the United States and China will face each other and see if they can set the world's most dangerous military relationship on a safer track. Their task is to reduce the risk that any of the flashpoints proliferating on China's periphery will escalate into war with the United States.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is known as an affable and straight-talking army man. So too is Gen. Fang Fenghui, his counterpart at China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).

"Fang is smart, he's impressive, he's his own person and he wants to make a more professional force," says one of several recent visitors who has spent productive hours with him in Beijing.

PLA leaders have always calculated that their interests are best served by allowing minimal genuine communication and revealing nothing about capabilities, intentions or systems of command. But as China's military gets bigger and more powerful, there are signs that the calculus of secrecy is changing.

Does China have "more than 100 nuclear weapons," as the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated in 2006, or 3,000, as guesstimated by a recent Georgetown University study? In what circumstances would it use them and who has the power to press the button?

Could Dempsey tell the difference between the launch signature of one of the PLA's anti-ship ballistic missiles, with a conventional warhead, and a nuclear weapon on its way to the United States? If he urgently phoned the hotline to the Zhongnanhai Telecommunications Directorate, would he actually get through to Fang?

Until recently, the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's famous dictum -- "hide one's capacities and bide one's time" -- helped the PLA build its strength without triggering a neighborhood arms buildup in response. Its intentions were sufficiently ambiguous to discourage more powerful countries from pushing it around while its capabilities were not so scary as to provoke a serious defensive response.

But after two decades of double-digit budget hikes, the PLA can no longer use secrecy to disguise its capabilities. It has flight-tested a stealth fighter, deployed the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile -- dubbed the "assassin's mace" in China -- and launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. "A bigger power does not have the option of appearing weak," says Christopher Ford, the former U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation.

And with all the shiny hardware, it seems the PLA no longer has the patience to bide its time. The PLA Navy is pushing harder into disputed territories and causing almost every maritime nation in the region to increase military spending, form new security linkages with each other, and encourage the United States to accelerate its "pivot" toward China.

In December, Ford, who was then at the Hudson Institute in Washington, explained the diminishing returns of secrecy. He told PLA colonels and generals that an element of uncertainty can sometimes aid deterrence, particularly around the question of what provocation might trigger nuclear attack, but a profound lack of clarity will lead the other party to assume the worst. And this is what's happening with China.

"Beijing's strategic secretiveness has contributed to making it increasingly easy for Americans, and China's own neighbors, to assume the worst about the PRC's strategic planning and the intentions such planning supports," said Ford, in his paper on Sino-American distrust, delivered at a PLA conference on the topic in Beijing's Fragrant Hills.

That, of course, assumes that American and regional assumptions about China's potential for military aggression are inflated beyond reality. "If engineering a coercively Sinocentric regional or global ‘harmony' is not in fact the PRC's ambition, and Beijing's objectives are indeed as benign as its leaders claim, then it is vital to bring about vastly greater transparency," Ford said. "So far, the PRC has refused to provide meaningful transparency, but I would argue that this is becoming untenable and counterproductive."

The PLA still defines the United States as its enemy-in-chief, as Gen. Fang's deputy, Qi Jianguo, made clear in an essay in Study Times earlier this year. But the strategic calculus of secrecy may be changing with President Xi Jinping's new leadership team.

Since October, PLA officials have been treating their U.S. counterparts with relative warmth and openness, to the point that one shocked Pentagon official privately described it as a "love fest." Australia -- which has more open channels of cooperation with China than the United States or any other U.S. ally -- has proposed an ambitious program of joint exercises and exchanges. Behind closed doors, it has received a "positive" in-principle reply, according to officials familiar with the talks. Prime Minister Julia Gillard publicly broached the possibility of trilateral exercises with China and the United States while touring China this week.

Last month General Fang picked up the dusty hotline and told General Dempsey that China was "willing to strengthen its communications with the U.S. military to enhance mutual trust, handle differences properly, and deepen co-operation," according to a Xinhua report confirmed by Dempsey's public affairs officer, Col. Dave Lapan.

The United States and China are locked in a dangerous rivalry that may go on for decades. But at least the generals are talking and searching for ways to prevent accidents spiraling out of control.

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The Strange Case of the White Jihadist of Timbuktu

Was Abdul Jalil al-Fransi an al Qaeda fighter -- or a French spy?

Gilles Le Guen seemed like France's worst nightmare. He was a white Frenchman who could move around the country at will and had pledged his loyalty to al Qaeda's branch in North Africa. He had even fought alongside the jihadists during their occupation of northern Mali. But the story may not be so simple: Al Qaeda began to suspect that he was, in fact, a spy sent by France to infiltrate its ranks, and it launched an investigation to determine his true loyalties.

We know all this from a handwritten 10-page document in Arabic left behind by the extremists in the legendary northern Malian town of Timbuktu as they fled an impending French attack in January.

The document shows that Europeans did join al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but that the organization's leadership treated these "white al Qaeda" with the utmost suspicion. Particularly following a Danish convert's deadly betrayal of al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the terrorist group has good reason to be suspicious of white jihadists. The same applies in Syria, where hundreds of fighters with European passports -- Arabs and converts -- are joining extremist opposition groups.

Almost all jihadi fighters who conquered Timbuktu in March 2012 were Arabs from Algeria, Morocco, Mali, or Mauritania. They were turban-wearing, battled-hardened men belonging to AQIM who waged their jihad in one of the most unforgiving places on Earth -- the Sahara, the world's largest desert.

Among this hardened group of fighters, Le Guen stood out. He was a convert to Islam, a former ship captain, an ex-employee of Doctors Without Borders, and he carried a French passport. He and his Moroccan wife arrived in Timbuktu shortly before the town was captured by AQIM and its local Malian partner, Ansar Dine. As the extremists approached Timbuktu, many black, non-Arab Malians and Western tourists fled in panic. But Le Guen and his wife chose to stay.

The Frenchman immediately joined al Qaeda's desert force. Le Guen's comrades even gave him an Arabic nom de guerre: Abdul Jalil al-Fransi, or "Abdul Jalil the Frenchman." In Timbuktu, he received military training from AQIM and recorded a video message in French in support of the group's holy war. The video of Le Guen sitting next to a Kalashnikov appeared on YouTube on Oct. 9, and he looked every bit the confident Islamic warrior.

One month later, however, Le Guen was in trouble -- serious trouble. His new friends had heard from an al Qaeda fighter that Le Guen received a telephone call from the French Embassy in Mali's capital, Bamako. This, of course, raised suspicion among AQIM ranks: Was Abdul Jalil al-Fransi a true jihadist, or was he a French spy?

On Nov. 10, Le Guen was arrested and interrogated by al Qaeda forces in Timbuktu. His Moroccan wife was also questioned. One day later, the group opened an investigation into his case and appointed its notorious commander, Abdul Hamid Abu Zaid, as the lead investigator. (Clearly such work wasn't Abu Zaid's calling, as Gilles Le Guen's name was misspelled in Arabic throughout the entire document as "Gilles Leon.")

Opened on Nov. 11, the investigation began with the testimony of an al Qaeda fighter from Mauritania who went by the nom de guerre Abu al-Dardaa al-Shanqiti. The fighter said he met the Frenchmen at the militants' Abu Haretha camp, where Le Guen "entered a training session on heavy weapons and showed patience while practicing."

The "Abu Haretha camp" is the former headquarters of Mali's military police and was used by the militants after the security forces fled town. AQIM transformed the building there into one of its headquarters and used the site as a military training camp. During the French invasion, it was one of the first targets of French airstrikes and is now fully destroyed.

The Mauritanian fighter said that Le Guen had told him that the French Embassy had been in touch with him. He added that he considered Le Guen a good man but someone who was "not well versed in the concept of allegiance [to Islam]."

Le Guen also had money. "He told me his mother sends him money," Shanqiti added. "And two months before he told me he likes to buy a car, because he received 1,000 euros from his mother."

In addition to having contact with the French Embassy and a ready supply of funds, Le Guen was asking questions about a sensitive topic for the jihadists. "He always asked about the situation of the [Western] hostages and what we will do after the attack of the enemies," the Mauritanian fighter told the investigators,

The investigators then ask the Mauritanian witness about Nawal, Le Guen's Moroccan wife. "Yes, his wife asks a lot of questions, like: 'What will the brothers do if the war starts? Where will they go to?' Yesterday when I met her after she was accused and after her husband was arrested, she was still talking about the same topics."

After this, Le Guen himself was questioned. Abu Zaid, the top AQIM commander, stepped in to interrogate him personally.

Le Guen was asked to introduce himself. The Frenchman mentioned he had converted to Islam in 1982 or 1983 in Tunisia, while working on a ship.

The investigators asked for more details. "I was the captain of the ship," the Frenchman said. "In that year I quit my work. I returned to France. My wife became a Muslim when I married her. She used to work in factories, and then she moved to agriculture. In 1999, I divorced this woman after she gave birth to two sons: 16-year old Abdul Karim, and the first son is called Sinbad and he is 18. They are now in France."

The investigators weren't satisfied. They reported that they had decided to repeat the investigation. In the page where they wrote down the basic information about his name and occupation, they included a question: Did Le Guen ever serve in the French Army?

"I served in it when I was 18, and my military rank was: deuxième classe," Le Guen claimed, giving a low rank. The investigators write in brackets the word "soldier" next to his answer.

Le Guen claimed that he had forgotten the names of the weapons with which he trained in the French Army. When the jihadists pressed him, he ventured that he had shot an M7 machine gun.

The repeated investigation led to many pages of notes on Le Guen's personal life. They reveal details about his life as a ship captain, his troubled family life, and his broken relations with his siblings. During the course of the investigation, Le Guen also revealed that at one point he went back to France to work for the international NGO Doctors Without Borders and was stationed in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa for six months. "They took me because I know languages like French, English, and Spanish," he said.

Doctors Without Borders' operations advisor, Fabrice Weissman, confirmed to us that Le Guen had worked with the organization in 1985 as a logistician. Weissman added that Doctors Without Borders had no contact with him after that and had no idea Le Guen was living in Timbuktu. "We discovered the presence of a French jihadist with a past history with MSF after the release of his video on YouTube," he said, using the organization's French acronym.

The AQIM investigators' main interest was, of course, the apparent telephone contact between Le Guen and the French Embassy. During the interrogation, the Frenchman admitted he was indeed contacted by his embassy, but he maintained the discussion was harmless. He asserted that a neighbor in Timbuktu had fled the city and subsequently gave the embassy his number. "They called me, and I told the embassy I am facing no problems in Timbuktu," he explained.

The French Embassy in Bamako confirmed it had called French nationals in Timbuktu after al Qaeda overran northern Mali and asked them to leave the area. However, embassy press officer Didier Nourrisson claimed the embassy did not contact Le Guen. "We don't know anything about him," he said. "We have no idea about his motives. We don't know where this man currently is."

And that's where the 10-page investigation into Le Guen ends. The document does not report a verdict, so it remains unclear whether AQIM considers the Frenchman to be a spy or a real jihadist.

But there is a third possibility. During the investigation, the Mauritanian witness suggested that Le Guen might have been mentally ill. "I noticed that maybe sometimes he passes through psychological conditions and maybe he is psychologically disturbed," he said.

Spy, jihadist, or madman? Whatever the truth, ever since Gilles Le Guen was taken into custody by AQIM, nothing has been heard of him or his wife.