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Pompeo Quietly Meets Chinese Counterpart Amid Mounting Tensions
The top U.S. diplomat’s furtive meeting in Hawaii comes as John Bolton’s tell-all roils Washington.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is under fire amid a Hawaii trip, tensions rise on the Korean peninsula, and the United States green-lights new weapons for Ukraine.
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A New Diplomatic Channel Between Washington and Beijing
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Hawaii this week for private meetings with his Chinese counterpart that were shrouded in secrecy—opening a new diplomatic channel between two countries that have been at loggerheads for months over the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Pompeo met with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, on Tuesday and Wednesday, though there are few details about what was discussed. A State Department readout said they spoke about the need for “fully reciprocal” deals on security and trade issues, and that Pompeo stressed the need for “full transparency and information sharing” on the pandemic.
In recent months, U.S. President Donald Trump has blamed China for fumbling its response at the beginning of the pandemic, and China has shot back with its own brand of bellicose diplomacy.
He said, Xi said. Underscoring the gap between China and the United States is the fact that neither agree on who requested the meeting, as the Washington Post reports. Diplomats on both sides told foreign counterparts that it was the other country that first asked for talks. It’s still unclear what the discussions accomplished, and neither side indicated whether there would be a follow-up.
Something to keep in mind. The United States can’t tackle the North Korea problem without China, the country’s biggest benefactor. Pyongyang signaled its unhappiness with stalled nuclear talks this week with classic diplomatic subtlety: by blowing up South Korea’s de facto embassy in the north this week. Two summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un haven’t led to a breakthrough. And on Wednesday, North Korea announced that it would remilitarize parts of the border where both countries agreed to reduce tensions just two years ago.
Bolton bombshells hit Pompeo. Pompeo’s trip to Hawaii was overshadowed by his former colleague, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, whose book on his time in the Trump administration reportedly includes allegations that the secretary of state badmouthed the president behind closed doors. The New York Times, which got an advance copy of the book, reports that Bolton alleged Pompeo slipped him a note during the president’s meeting with Kim in 2018 that said Trump was “so full of shit”—though a source close to Pompeo disputes this account, according to Politico’s Jake Sherman.
Pompeo is one of Trump’s closest confidantes, working to ensure there is never any daylight between him and the president. Revelations that Pompeo disparaged Trump could undercut their relationship. Maligning Trump in private ended badly for Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who reportedly called Trump a “moron” after a July 2017 meeting at the Pentagon. Seven months later, Trump fired Tillerson via Twitter.
What We’re Watching
U.S. military aid to Ukraine. The U.S. Congress approved a $250 million defense package for Ukraine last week, aimed at boosting Ukrainian military capabilities in the face of Russian aggression. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv announced on Wednesday that $60 million worth of weapons and other military equipment was en route to Ukraine as part of the package. Military aid to Ukraine became a hot-button issue last year, when it was revealed that Trump had ordered his administration to withhold assistance to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of the family of Joe Biden—leading to Trump’s impeachment.
Russian aircraft in Libya. The U.S. Defense Department has spotted Russian aircraft in Libya aiding Wagner Group paramilitaries in the war-torn country, the U.S. Africa Command said in a statement this morning. On a call with reporters, U.S. Europe and Africa Air Forces chief Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian said the number of Russian aircraft is in the “upper teens.” If Russia gains a more permanent foothold, “that’s going to be a significant security concern” to Europe, Harrigian said.
All quiet on the southern front? China is tamping down conflict on its border with India after the country’s deadliest military action in decades: Clashes on Monday between its troops and Indian forces left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead. The number of Chinese casualties is not known, but it could be as many as 35. Beijing has gone uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, potentially paving the way for talks to de-escalate tensions between the two nuclear powers.
Movers and Shakers
Wednesday night massacre. All four heads of the media organizations under the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) have been sacked in an unprecedented move. The heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the Open Technology Fund were all fired Wednesday evening, officials and congressional aides told Foreign Policy.
Top leaders at the Voice of America (VOA), which is also under USAGM, resigned earlier in the week. The shake-up comes after Trump railed against VOA—a U.S.-funded but independent agency—and accused it of spreading Chinese propaganda. Democratic lawmakers have condemned the firings, which they say undercut the organizations’ independence.
Michael Pack, a former conservative filmmaker and an associate of former White House strategist Steve Bannon, was confirmed this month as the new USAGM chief despite an investigation by the D.C. attorney general for improperly using funds from his former nonprofit.
Foreign Policy Recommends
U.S. sailors implicated in sex trafficking ring. An deeply reported investigation by the Military Times lays bare the extent of sex crimes committed by U.S. sailors in Bahrain, including the trafficking of women and potentially underage girls for prostitution in U.S. taxpayer-funded housing. The U.S. Navy says it has the issue under control after investigations in 2017 and 2018.
The Week Ahead
Former Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah will discuss the Afghan peace talks in an event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace next Wednesday, June 24. Abdullah was recently appointed chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, which will oversee the Afghan government’s talks with the Taliban.
Odds and Ends
No happy birthday for Xi. Since taking office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never missed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s birthday, always sending a pleasant birthday message to his Chinese counterpart. Not this this year—which is unsurprising, given the worsening relations between India and China.
That’s it for today.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch