Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Pompeo Ramps Up Diplomatic War on China

In the latest sign of worsening U.S.-China relations, the Trump administration slaps restrictions on Chinese diplomats meeting with local government and university officials.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference on June 14, 2018 in Beijing, China.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference on June 14, 2018 in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump administration cracks down on movements of Chinese diplomats in the U.S., a new DoD report on China’s growing military might, new details on the U.S. counter-terror campaign in Somalia, personnel shake-ups at the Pentagon, and more.

Chloe Hadavas and Augusta Saraiva contributed to this report. 

If you would like to receive Security Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump administration cracks down on movements of Chinese diplomats in the U.S., a new DoD report on China’s growing military might, new details on the U.S. counter-terror campaign in Somalia, personnel shake-ups at the Pentagon, and more.

Chloe Hadavas and Augusta Saraiva contributed to this report. 

If you would like to receive Security Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

No Room to Maneuver

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that senior Chinese diplomats would need advance permission to visit U.S. university campuses, meet with local government officials, and organize events larger than 50 people outside of embassy grounds. It’s the latest escalation in the simmering tit-for-tat diplomatic battle between Washington and Beijing with tensions over military maneuverings in the Asia-Pacific, the coronavirus pandemic, and trade.

The move reflects how distrustful the Trump administration is of China’s soft power forays in the United States, including Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes on college campuses. It’s also likely to worsen relations between Washington and Beijing after the United States abruptly forced the closure of China’s consulate in Houston amid espionage accusations.

Pompeo in his announcement on Wednesday characterized the move as only fair, given how many restrictions American diplomats in China face in trying to conduct routine business. “We’re simply demanding reciprocity. Access for our diplomats in China should be reflective of the access that Chinese diplomats in the United States have, and today’s steps will move us substantially in that direction,” he said.

What We’re Watching

China’s growing military might. China plans to transform its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a force that rivals the U.S. military within 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s new annual report on China’s military and security developments. Not only have China’s navy, ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, and air defense systems recently surpassed those of the United States, but the country has also entirely restructured the PLA, forged closer ties to foreign militaries, and expanded its presence overseas. The modernization of the PLA is part of the government’s plans for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, and its ambitions are far from symbolic: The government’s goal, according to the report, is to use the PLA as a tool in its statecraft to bolster China’s place in the international order and help the country “lead the reform of the global governance system.”

You down with I-C-C? (Not U.S.G.) On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced sanctions on top International Criminal Court officials who investigate or prosecute American service members and personnel without the consent of the U.S. government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. sanctions first unveiled in June will be slapped on ICC’s top prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and its head of jurisdiction, Phakiso Mochochoko, freezing their American assets and hitting them with harsh travel restrictions typically reserved for war criminals. One of just a few nations that have not signed up to the court, U.S. grievances against the Hague-based body come as it is investigating whether American forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

Oops Sec. Photo captions posted on the Defense Department’s online content hub are shedding new light on how secretive U.S. counter-terrorism forces in Somalia operate, according to ace national security reporters Wesley Morgan and Chad Garland. The article posted late last week by the Pentagon’s top task force in the Horn of Africa reveals more clearly the structure of American forces in the war-torn country than previously known. The United States is using a military assistance group, office of security cooperation, and joint special operations task force that likely oversees the bulk of the Navy SEAL team operating there, Morgan said. The Pentagon statement indicated that the military assistance group works with United Nations-backed military forces in Somalia to develop their “capability to conduct combined operations.” (But as VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports this week, a new Pentagon watchdog assessment found that terrorist groups are gaining ground in Africa despite U.S. and international counter-terrorism efforts.)

An olive branch to Kim. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a favorite to replace departing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said on Wednesday he’s prepared to start talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions to resolve the abductions of Japanese nationals. Japan estimates that 875 citizens are suspected of being kidnapped by North Korea since the 1970s, and though Pyongyang denies most of the cases, they have cast a longstanding pall over the two countries’ relations. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is set to pick his successor on Sept. 14.

Movers and Shakers

New DARPA chief. Dr. Victoria Coleman, an expert on artificial intelligence and microelectronics, has been named the new head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s secretive research arm. Coleman is the third woman to lead the agency since its inception in 1958, as’s Richard Sisk reports.

Revolving door at the Pentagon. Michael Cutrone, a former national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence who officials feared would try to weed out civilians seen as disloyal to Trump when he joined the Pentagon in May, is moving up. Politico reported on Thursday that Cutrone will lead the Pentagon’s international policy shop, which oversees Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Cutrone follows a quick succession of officials in that role, after Katie Wheelbarger, who acted in the position for two years but was spurned for a top Pentagon intelligence role, resigned in June. Michael Ryan, the deputy assistant secretary for Europe who had temporarily stepped into the position after Wheelbarger’s departure, will retain his old role.

Top Esper aide launched into space (policy). Justin Johnson, a former policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation and most recently Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s deputy chief of staff, is getting a promotion to become the Pentagon’s civilian lead for the nascent Space Force. Stephen Kitay, the last deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, left the administration in August.

New State Department watchdog… again. The Trump administration tapped Michael Klimow, a career government employee and recent ambassador to Turkmenistan, to head the State Department’s troubled Office of Inspector General, Politico’s Nahal Toosi reports. The watchdog office has been at the center of pitched battles between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Democratic lawmakers over investigations into allegations of mismanagement and controversial arms sales under Trump. The last watchdog quit after less than three months on the job.

Aas-ta la vista. Kåre Aas, Norwegian ambassador to the United States, announced his tour is coming to an end after 7 years, leaving a Washington that is very different from the one he entered in 2013.

From the Vault

Paramilitary president? Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe–currently under house arrest amid a probe into alleged acts of fraud, bribery, and witness tampering–might have worked closely with right-wing militias in the 1990s, newly declassified U.S. intelligence reports disclosed this week indicate. Additional U.S. cables suggest that backstage deals with paramilitary groups might have continued during his presidency. Beyond the militias, past U.S. reports have also indicated that the former president might have worked with his home state’s Medellín Cartel, describing him as “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar.” There is no evidence that Uribe’s alleged ties to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, for its Spanish acronym), which Washington declared a foreign terrorist organization in 2001, jeopardized U.S. aid to Colombia during his presidency.

Odds and Ends

Tour the Pentagon’s nuke museum. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, you can now tour the Pentagon’s own museum of nuclear weapons dating back to the Manhattan Project. Some of the highlights: rarely seen pictures of scuttled Cold War-era nukes and the Defense Department’s very own collection of Soviet missiles.

What We’re Reading

Spy games in East Africa. From the Daily Maverick, a must-read piece of investigative reporting that details the CIA and MI6’s secret counter-terrorism wars in Kenya.

The Week Ahead:

On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Pompeo will speak at the Atlantic Council about China’s influence on Europe after visiting the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Austria, and Poland last month.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma–forced from office earlier this year–will begin a corruption trial linked with a 1990s arms deal on Tuesday.

Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins and Surgeon General Vice Adm. Jerome Adams are set to testify in the Senate on Wednesday on U.S. efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

That’s it for today.

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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

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