This week’s Defense News contains a story by Asian correspondent Wendell Minnick that raises troubling questions about the behavior of former Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. William Owens. The story suggests that Owens is being used by retired members of the Peoples Liberation Army to help a Chinese telecom company penetrate the U.S. military technology market. It also implies that a series of actions Owens has taken to foster Chinese-American military dialogue are closely tied to business interests that have made Owens a wealthy man since he retired from the Navy in 1996.
It isn’t unusual for senior military officers to enter the corporate world after they retire. What makes Owens different is that he became managing director of AEA Holdings Asia in Hong Kong, a privately-held U.S. firm that invests in overseas stocks. Because much of the action in Asian stock markets since Owens joined AEA in 2006 has involved Chinese equities, he has become intimately familiar with mainland companies and executives. Maybe a little too familiar. The Defense News report cites a former naval colleague as saying Owens became much more positively disposed to the Chinese after he moved to Hong Kong, retreating from previous warnings about the Chinese military threat to America and even calling for an end to U.S. support of Taiwan’s government.
Owens has been especially close to Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which is working hard to become a player in the U.S. cellular communications market. He serves as chairman of a Kansas-based company called Amerilink Telecom that has been helping Huawei market its phones to Sprint Nextel. Sprint Nextel sells cellular service mainly in commercial markets, but it also is a major supplier of the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies. Eight Republican senators recently sent a letter to federal agencies warning that if the Sprint campaign was successful, it would raise major security concerns by positioning a state-influenced Chinese manufacturer to provide equipment for the joint force.
Huawei’s founder is a former Chinese military officer who has close ties to the government. Many corporate executives in China do, since it is a state-run economy. One item the Defense News story doesn’t mention is that Huawei is currently being sued by Motorola for pirating its technology (Cisco launched a similar suit against Huawei in 2003). But even if Huawei isn’t found guilty of stealing U.S. intellectual property, the highly public role that Adm. Owens has played in promoting Chinese-American military cooperation at the same time that he is making big money working with retired PLA members in trans-Pacific business ventures has to raise ethical questions. This story definitely deserves more attention from the national media.
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