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.

U.S. Democrats Unveil Hawkish Strategy to Counter China

The U.S. approach to its great power rival might not change significantly if Democrats take the White House in November. 

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping accompanies U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a welcome ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping accompanies U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a welcome ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: U.S. Senate Democrats get tough on China, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo battles Congress, and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper looks to fund more shipbuilding to expand the U.S. Navy.

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Great Power Competition With China Heats Up

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: U.S. Senate Democrats get tough on China, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo battles Congress, and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper looks to fund more shipbuilding to expand the U.S. Navy.

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


Great Power Competition With China Heats Up

Not to be outmatched by U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric against China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Senate Democrats have their own plan to stick it to Beijing. As Trump’s allies have called former Vice President Joe Biden weak on China, the Democrats now plan to fire back with legislation that would put in place harsher trade enforcement measures and build up U.S. industrial capacity to challenge the rising power.

If the bill is passed—which is no guarantee in a Republican-controlled Senate—it would also force the Trump administration to crack down further on Beijing and recast U.S. diplomatic efforts and human rights priorities on China.

While Democrats and Republicans clash on virtually all aspects of Trump’s foreign-policy agenda, China is a rare exception, with lawmakers on both sides urging the administration to do more to counter Beijing’s global influence.

“Many on this committee have concerns that the administration’s strategies and policies to deal with this new China still fall well short of answering the enormity of the challenge,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a committee hearing on Thursday.

During the hearing, senior administration diplomats outlined its view of how Beijing poses a growing threat. Trump’s top acting envoy for Europe warned that Beijing was sowing division between the United States and its European allies.

“China does not necessarily seek new allies in Europe—they prefer vassals not partners—but it does want to drive a wedge between the United States and our allies,” said Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state in the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs.


What We’re Watching

Pompeo’s wars with Capitol Hill continue. The pitched battle between U.S. House Democrats and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reached a head on Wednesday with a fiery hearing. Some of Pompeo’s closest aides attempted to fend off accusations of wrongdoing and misleading Congress over Trump and Pompeo’s decision to sack the State Department watchdog, who had launched investigations into fast-tracked arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

An inspector general’s report found the arms sales were legal but that the State Department failed to take into account risks of increased civilian casualties. “You pat yourselves on the back when it’s determined that you technically followed the process laid out in law. More Yemeni children may die, but your scheme to make an end run around Congress wasn’t illegal, strictly speaking. Congratulations,” Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said.

Naval gazing. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called for more funding to expand the size of the U.S. Navy in a policy speech at the Rand Corporation on Wednesday, after getting briefed on the Pentagon’s closely guarded plan to increase the size of the fleet to 355 ships.

To get to that number, Esper is proposing major investments in unmanned vessels able to conduct surveillance, logistics, and combat power against a near-peer challenger such as China. Defense News reported that a remaining question is whether the Navy will foot the bill or if it would come from the broader Defense Department budget.

Navalny poisoning likely occurred at hotel. Backers of the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny said on Thursday that a nerve agent that left their boss in a coma was found on an empty water bottle in a hotel room in Siberia. Previously, Navalny was believed to be poisoned at the airport in the Siberian city of Tomsk, as he became sick on the flight out. European officials say that Navalny, a longtime government critic, was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok— a charge the Kremlin denies.


Movers and Shakers

Suga’s cabinet. Freshly minted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced his cabinet on Wednesday. It features many familiar faces in Japanese politics. Taro Aso, a one-time prime minister, will stay in place as finance minister, while the seasoned diplomat Toshimitsu Motegi remains foreign minister.

One big shakeup: Defense Minister Taro Kono will move to the ministry of administrative reform. Taking his old job is departing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s brother, Nobuo Kishi.


Foreign Policy Recommends 

“This war is out of our hands.” New America’s Frederic Wehrey has issued a new in-depth report on the state of the conflict in Libya, mired in messy geopolitics and competing proxy powers. Far from the regular jargon-filled think tank report, Wehrey’s report is full of fascinating anecdotes and insights based on interviews with Libyan and other foreign officials on the front lines of the conflict.


The Week Ahead

Reps. Joaquin Castro and Will Hurd speak at a Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual event today at 1 p.m. EST on information warfare and U.S. competition with China.

European Union leaders will hold a special meeting over the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean on Sept. 24 and 25.


Quote of the Week 

“We believe that Venus is a Russian planet.”

—Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, after announcing a new Russian initiative to independently explore the planet. 


Odds and Ends

MiGs on the campaign trail. The fundraising arm of the Trump campaign issued a digital ad centered on supporting U.S. troops, which ran from Sept. 8 through Sept. 12. The only problem? It used photos of Russian fighter jets, Politico reports.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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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