China Running 'Concentration Camps' for Millions of Muslims, Pentagon Says

Muslim protesters hold banners during a rally outside China's embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)
Muslim protesters hold banners during a rally outside China's embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

The Defense Department charged Friday that China is running "concentration camps" for possibly three million Muslims to maintain internal control while aggressively pursuing a military buildup to confront the U.S.

Use of the politically explosive term "concentration camps" is appropriate given the scope of China's massive detentions of mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs and other groups in the country's western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, said Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs.

At a Pentagon briefing on the DoD's annual report on China's military, Schriver said that "at least a million, but likely closer to three million, out of a total population of about 10 million" Uighurs and other groups had been sent to camps, "so a very significant portion of the population."

"What's happening there," coupled with the public statements of Chinese officials, "make what I think a very appropriate description," he said in calling relocation sites "concentration camps."

Last year, Amnesty International reported that at least one million members of Muslim ethnic groups were being held in what China officially calls "transformation through education" centers.

The group said the detentions are part of a "campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region's Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups."

The campaign to stifle dissent is part of China's strategy to project power and confront the U.S. through a massive military buildup, and the "One Belt One Road, or OBOR, initiative for global economic dominance, the Pentagon's report states.

Schriver said China is expected to field its first fifth-generation fighter, the J-20, this year and also put to sea its first domestically produced aircraft carrier.

In addition, China is continuing to test ballistic missiles for submarines in pursuit of a nuclear triad of land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons to match the U.S., he said.

China also is expected to build more military outposts worldwide, possibly beginning with Pakistan, increasing its global influence following construction of its first overseas military base, in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, according to the report.

The thrust of the report focuses on the threat to U.S. national security interests -- and its traditional position as the major power in the Pacific -- posed by Chinese expansionism, building off its claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea to seek influence worldwide through military and economic means.

"China's advancement of projects such as the 'One Belt, One Road' Initiative will probably drive military overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security for OBOR projects," the annual report to Congress states.

"China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan," according to the report. China's reach is expected to extend into the Arctic.

"Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks," the report states.

China is also adept at using espionage to steal technology in pursuit of its military buildup against the U.S., it states.

"China uses a variety of methods to acquire foreign military and dual-use technologies, including targeted foreign direct investment, cyber theft, and exploitation of private Chinese nationals' access to these technologies," according to the report.

China is also "harnessing its intelligence services, computer intrusions, and other illicit approaches" in an all-out the effort to blunt U.S. advantages, it adds.

Despite its growing military capabilities and arsenals, China is still wary of open conflict with the U.S. and its allies, the report states.

"China's leaders employ tactics short of armed conflict to pursue China's strategic objectives through activities calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking armed conflict with the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Indo-Pacific region," the 123-page report says.

The main goal of China's buildup is aimed at "advancing a comprehensive military modernization program aimed at completing modernization by 2035 and making the PLA [People's Liberation Army] into a 'world-class' military by 2049," according to the report.

China currently has the region's largest navy, with more than 300 surface combatants, submarines, amphibious ships and patrol craft. A top priority is modernization of the submarine fleet, the report states.

Four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN), and 50 conventionally powered attack submarines are now in operation in China's submarine force, it adds.

China's first domestically built aircraft carrier was launched in 2017, completed sea trials in 2018, and "will likely join the fleet by the end of 2019," the report says.

The new carrier is a modified version of the Liaoning, a converted former Soviet ship with a sloping deck for jump jets, but lacks a catapult launch system and has a smaller flight deck than U.S. carriers, according to the report.

China began construction of its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2018, "which will likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system," the report states.

It also noted advances made by the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) with anti-ship missiles that Chinese military leaders claim can knock out U.S. carriers.

"China's conventionally armed CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) variant gives the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific," according to the report.

China currently has 90 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and "the PLA Rocket Force also continues to enhance its fixed ICBMs [by] adding more survivable, mobile delivery systems," the report says.

Schriver adds, "China continues to grow its inventory of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. These missiles are capable of conducting conventional and nuclear precision strikes against both ground and naval targets in the western Pacific and Indian oceans."

Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke to the difficulty of establishing regular lines of communication with the Chinese military to avoid having incidents escalate to the point of nuclear confrontation.

During his tenure as chairman since 2015, Dunford said he has met with his Russian counterpart, General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov, four times and they have maintained regular communications.

"I'm confident we have the ability to mitigate the risk and manage a crisis with Russia," but with China "we don't have that same capability," he said at a hearing Wednesday of the House Appropriations Subcommittee.

"With China, for more than a decade, we attempted to create a formal framework" for military-to-military communications similar to the Russian framework, Dunford said, but "I am not confident that that's where it needs to be now."

"It's a priority for us, we need to do that," he said. "In the meantime, we have to rely on diplomatic channels."

He added, "There's a lot of suspicion on both sides."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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