Security Brief

Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Could Outlast Him

With the president on the campaign trail, administration officials are crossing the region to counter China’s rise—moves that a Biden administration might embrace.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper watches during a joint press briefing in the lawns of Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Oct. 27, 2020.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper watches during a joint press briefing in the lawns of Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Oct. 27, 2020. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief—the last edition before the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3.

What’s on tap today: The Trump administration scrambles to counter China ahead of the election, congressional Democrats in prepare to brawl over defense spending, and the Pentagon admits new civilian deaths in the fight against the Islamic State.

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Trump’s Moves in the Indo-Pacific

Though U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be the underdog next week, the upcoming election hasn’t stopped his administration from embarking on moves across the Asia-Pacific region to counter China’s rise. On Tuesday, after meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a pact to share sensitive satellite information that can provide targets for missiles and drones, the latest major defense deal with New Delhi.

The Trump administration has also pledged to beef up the U.S. diplomatic presence in the region, with Pompeo announcing plans to open the first-ever U.S. embassy in the Maldives on Wednesday alongside other defense deals. Pompeo used visits to the Maldives and Sri Lanka to slam what he has dubbed China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”—predatory loans on infrastructure projects in both countries. Pompeo is visiting Indonesia today.

The State Department also approved the sale of more than $2 billion in Harpoon missiles to Taiwan this week, leading Beijing to announce sanctions against three major U.S. defense contractors.

Those aren’t the only moves that the United States is making. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite just wrapped up a trip to the region, stressing that the U.S. military was falling behind in competition with China. He traveled through Japan, Singapore, Guam, and Palau—a tiny island that has asked the Pentagon to build bases, ports, and airfields to counter Beijing. “It is an unbelievable threat to our way of life,” Braithwaite said during the trip, which he also used to articulate Chinese military threats in the Arctic.

Pompeo, Esper, and Braithwaite could all be lame ducks by next week, but their pre-election moves are likely to outlive the administration if Trump loses. In an interview with CBS 60 Minutes last week, Biden called China the greatest geopolitical competitor to the United States, and so far his policy to contain Beijing sounds like more of the same.

“People in Beijing may be nervous about Joe Biden because they recognize that he is going to work with allies,” Jeffrey Prescott, a Biden advisor, told Axios. That doesn’t sound like an administration that would reverse Trump’s moves—but one that might make them enduring.


What We’re Watching

The new abnormal. A specter of violence hangs over the U.S. elections as political polarization surges across the country. The International Crisis Group has issued a new report analyzing the risks of violence during or immediately after the election, and warning that the polarization has fostered “an environment in which non-state groups, cells and actors, some of whom adopt paramilitary trappings, pose an increasing security risk.”

This is the first time that the International Crisis Group, which usually focuses on fragile states and war-torn countries, has issued such a report on the United States. Earlier this month, members of a right-wing terror group were detained after allegedly plotting to storm the state’s capitol and kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster was also on the group’s target list, according to a new report.

Offensive on defense. Focused on defeating Trump, progressive and centrist Democrats have largely paused their policy feuds ahead of the 2020 elections. But if the Democrats take the White House and Senate, there is a fight brewing over defense spending. Progressives are expected to renew a push for deep defense spending cuts, as Politico’s Connor O’Brien reports.

“This will be a top priority of the progressive caucus—to really get some meaningful budget cuts in Pentagon spending this next cycle,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said earlier this month.

Mis-accountability. The Pentagon has released a new report on the campaign against the Islamic State—Operation Inherent Resolve—that found the U.S.-led coalition conducted 34,917 strikes since the operation began in August 2014. In that time, the Pentagon reports that strikes unintentionally killed at least 1,410 civilians.

Human rights groups have consistently accused the coalition of undercounting civilian casualties. Independent investigators estimate that the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led actions in Iraq and Syria totals between 8,320 and 13,247 over the course of six years.


Movers and Shakers

State Department move. Nicholas Kass took over on Monday as a deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing Africa, Asia, and Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.


Quote of the Week

“I’ve seen more exciting reveals in Scooby-Doo episodes.”

—White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, in reaction to former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor revealing that he was the official who wrote an anonymous New York Times op-ed describing a resistance within the administration


Foreign Policy Recommends

On the house. When Trump hosted then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida two years ago, the Trump Organization billed U.S. taxpayers for thousands of dollars in expenses, for everything from floral arrangements to the $3 water bottles that the two leaders sipped in bilateral meetings.

A stunning investigation by The Washington Post reveals that the Trump Organization has taken at least $2.5 million out of taxpayer’s pockets since Trump became president, and the company has charged another $5.6 million to his campaign and fundraising committee. The trend has continued even as Trump loses ground in the polls.


Odds and Ends

Consult the manual. The U.S. military is increasingly online, using gaming platforms and especially the popular gaming streaming site Twitch to find new recruits. As gaming news site ShackNews.com reports, the U.S. Navy even has a manual for when Twitch viewers ask Navy streamers about war crimes.


That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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