The Cable

SitRep: Trump in Beijing, After North Korea Warnings

Back channel talks with North Korea, cost of U.S. wars, and lasers on planes.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One upon their arrival at Beijing  on November 8. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One upon their arrival at Beijing on November 8. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Donald goes to Beijing. President Trump arrived in Beijing Wednesday with a big agenda: convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to halt oil exports to North Korea, shut down North Korean bank accounts in China, and to deport tens of thousands of North Koreans who work in China.

Trump has been trying to build a personal relationship with Xi for months, in what has been an intermittently successful attempt to get China to place more pressure on Pyongyang. But many experts see it as a mostly futile strategy. The NYT:

“There are big differences in the way of thinking between the United States and China on North Korea,” said Yang Xiyu, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry negotiator on North Korea. “Trump thinks of North Korea too simplistically — that if China cuts off the oil, the nuclear issue will be solved.”

Some thoughts before leaving. Before leaving South Korea on Wednesday, the president delivered a speech to South Korean lawmakers where he offered little of the bombastic rhetoric he’s used in the past to talk about North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

He warned Kim, however, to “not underestimate us, and do not try us.” But Trump’s speech failed to offer Pyongyang or Beijing a diplomatic path forward, sticking instead to vague threats, telling Pyongyang, “the weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer…They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this path increases the peril you face.”

Back channel. North Korea experts Suzanne DiMaggio and Joel Wit reveal in a New York Times op-ed that they’ve been involved in private discussions between North Korean officials and former U.S. diplomatic and military officials. The talks helped spark the first meeting between the State Department’s Ambassador Joseph Yun and North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Choe Son-hui.

The duo write that the talks, begun shortly before the Trump administration came into office, indicate a North Korean desire for dialog and openness to addressing U.S. concerns about the size and scope of the North’s nuclear arsenal.

Trump and aides not on same page over Putin. Trump appears set to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin later this week during a regional conference in Vietnam, but not all White House aides are thrilled at the prospect. Given the recent indictments handed down in Washington to several top Trump aides over their ties to Russian officials, “some White House officials also view the optics of the meeting with trepidation,” Buzzfeed’s John Hudson writes.

DoD knew about crime reporting problems. The U.S. Air Force vet who walked into a Texas church and slaughtered 26 people was well known to service officials, who failed to notify the FBI over his domestic abuse court-martial which should have prevented him from purchasing weapons.

More from the AP: “The Pentagon has known for at least two decades about failures to give military criminal history information to the FBI, including the type of information the Air Force didn’t report about the Texas church gunman who had assaulted his wife and stepson while an airman.”

Oops? A Trump administration nominee for a top Pentagon post said Tuesday he thinks it’s “insane” that civilians can buy assault rifles, just days after the Texas massacre. “I’d also like to, and I may get in trouble with other members of the committee, just say how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy … a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15,” said Dean Winslow, nominee for assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, during a Tuesday nominatoion hearing.

Cost of war. Combat operations and related homeland security operations since 2001 have cost the United States an estimated $4.3 trillion, according to an annual analysis from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Given the money requested for the 2018 fiscal year, that total will likely rise to $5.6 trillion.

Almost there. The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday confirmed four nominees, including former Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper as Army secretary. The committee also approved Robert Wilkie to be undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Joseph Kernan as undersecretary of defense for intelligence and Guy B. Roberts to be assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who had held the nominations up over the Pentagon’s lack of transparency about its Afghanistan and Middle East strategies, told another group of Pentagon nominees Tuesday that his committee “will not stand for a lack of communication, a lack of responses to questions or we will exercise our constitutional responsibility, which is not moving forward with your nominations.”

These sanctions have teeth. As Trump heads to Beijing, a bill proposing tougher North Korea sanctions is making its way through the Senate, writes FP’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian. Previous U.S. sanctions aimed at curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear program have targeted individuals and small companies, but have yet to go after major Chinese financial institutions. That’s what this new bill will do if passed — and that is sure to irk Beijing.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

State Department shedding more talent. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), a professional association representing diplomatic personnel, says that the State Department “has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January,” due to the Trump administration’s having cut promotions in half. In a letter to its membership, AFSA also blames Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s management of the department for plummeting interest in diplomatic careers, writing that only half as many people have applied to take the Foreign Service Officer test as those who did last year.

Home stretch. In the 33 hours leading up through election day in 2016, Russian social media bots and astroturf accounts went into overdrive, pushing out extra tweets for Trump and switching on long-dormant and high profile accounts, according to a study of Twitter data published in The Daily Beast. Much of the content put out by the Russian troll accounts during the final hours of the campaign indicates an expectation on Moscow’s part that Trump would lose, seeking to stoke division with fake claims of voter fraud intended to delegitimize an expected victory from Hillary Clinton.

Truthers. President Trump ordered CIA director Mike Pompeo to meet with Bill Binney, a former NSA whistleblower, conspiracy theorist and 9/11 truther who issued a report claiming that Russia could not have hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016, according to NBC News. The meeting suggests skepticism on the part of the Trump administration about the intel community’s conclusions about Russia’s culpability for the election-related hacks, but a CIA spokesperson says the agency “stands by and has always stood by” the intelligence community’s assessment

The EU bets on JCPOA survival. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says American lawmakers signaled to her that they don’t plan to kill the Iran nuclear deal after the Trump administration decertified Iranian compliance with the terms of the deal, saying she received “clear indications that the intention is to keep the United States compliant with the agreement.”  

Pitch for more guns. Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi says he wants the U.S. to start arming Iraq’s Sunnis in order to help police areas which used to be occupied by the Islamic State. Al-Nujaifi also said the U.S. should push to disarm Iraq’s largely Shiite and partially Iranian-backed militias, saying the forces act as a kind of private army which furthers sectarian political divisions in the country.

Outcry over Yemen port closure. A coalition of 15 different humanitarian aid organizations is urging Saudi Arabia to reverse its closure of Yemen’s ports following a Houthi ballistic missile attack on Riyadh. The letter, signed by the likes of Oxfam, Save the Children, Relief International, and others, says that aid groups are “deeply concerned” about access to Yemen “as this has a direct impact on our ability to maintain life-saving assistance.”

Saudi Arabia drops a dime on Iranian weapons in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s U.S. embassy released a document detailing what is says is evidence of Iranian assistance and components in a range of weapons in Yemen. The report says that ballistic missiles, remotely-operated suicide boats, and drones found in Houthi arsenals all show signs of Iranian manufacturing and help.

Swag bag. The European defense contractors behind the Eurofighter hands out weapons-branded candy to win the hearts of the reporters and the public.

Lasers and fighter jets. It’s all happening for us. Lockheed Martin won a $26 million contract with the Air Force to begin work on a new airplane-mounted laser called the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD. The idea is that the weapon that can take out surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles more cheaply than current options. The first actual test aboard a fighter jet is slated for 2021.

France and India have their eyes on the Indo-Pacific. Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lamba is in France exploring areas of cooperation between France and India. The trip comes shortly after a visit by the French defense minister to India. The two countries are looking at potential defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific — a region under increasing pressure from an expanding Chinese navy.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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