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.

Big Questions for the Quad

Can the Pacific grouping stand up to China?

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A monitor displays a virtual meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
A monitor displaying a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japan's then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen during the virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting at Suga's official residence in Tokyo on March 12. Kiyoshi Ota/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! It’s raining here in Washington, so we’ve been cozying up to pumpkin spice lattes and dreaming of Oktoberfest. 

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: The White House gears up for the Quad summit, the Biden administration’s revolving door begins whirling, and the State Department looks to beef up its China staff

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! It’s raining here in Washington, so we’ve been cozying up to pumpkin spice lattes and dreaming of Oktoberfest. 

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: The White House gears up for the Quad summit, the Biden administration’s revolving door begins whirling, and the State Department looks to beef up its China staff

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


The Gang’s All Here

For the first time, the leaders of the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) are set to converge on the White House on Friday. But the fledgling grouping of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, which first set its sights on tackling a raging pandemic earlier this year, is now going to have to deal with a growing Chinese military footprint in the region. And this visit could be key for nudging India onto a more aggressive footing. 

What’s on tap? Publicly, the Biden administration insists that the meeting isn’t about the elephant in the room: China. U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (in what is likely his last visit to the White House as prime minister) will officially be focused on fighting COVID-19, addressing climate change, partnering on cybersecurity and emerging technologies, and promoting freedom of movement in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

But China has continued to toughen its military posture in the region since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In particular, the Taiwan problem is becoming more urgent: China flew more than a dozen fighter jets and two bombers into the island’s air defense zone earlier Thursday. 

Is this a military thing now? Even after tangling with Chinese troops in a deadly clash on the border last year, India has still been reluctantly tiptoeing toward a more forward military stance in the region. The White House is coming into this summit with some diplomatic wind in its sails after inking a deal with the United Kingdom and Australia to provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines over the next 18 months.

India and Japan won’t be involved in the so-called AUKUS partnership, according to the U.S. administration, but look for the Biden team to begin trying to inch India closer to wider military cooperation with Japan and Australia. The Biden administration is also working on an Indo-Pacific strategy, according to one source with knowledge of the situation, which could be rolled out in the coming weeks and may offer some clues. 

Quad-plus? France is still angry about being left in the dark on the AUKUS submarine deal (the French had a multibillion-dollar contract to provide the Australians with diesel-electric submarines), and Biden has already teased that there may be a larger role for France in the region to ease the heartburn.

The French ambassador has returned to Washington after briefly being recalled, but in a readout of Biden’s call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, the U.S. president reaffirmed “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.” Look for the Quad leaders to try to find ways to get European Union and NATO countries—which have already been conducting freedom of navigation operations in the region—more involved in Asia.  


Let’s Get Personnel

UNGApalooza. Robbie and our teammate Colum Lynch have some personnel scoops from the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. (Catch up on their pop-up newsletter about the massive diplomatic gathering here.) U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is set to lose his point man on Afghanistan, the French diplomat Jean Arnault, according to a source familiar with his plans.

But Guterres is getting two new top hires in Turtle Bay. Noeleen Heyzer, a Singaporean former U.N. official and social scientist, is a top contender to be the U.N.’s next envoy to Myanmar, a move that could strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ influence in a possible settlement. Staffan de Mistura also appears to be inching his way toward a role as U.N. envoy for Western Sahara, after a turn as U.N. envoy to Syria from 2014 to 2018. 

Protest vote. The State Department’s special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned on Wednesday in protest of the Biden administration’s decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees, a move the career foreign service officer said he fears “will fuel further desperation and crime.”

In a strongly worded resignation letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Foote said the Biden administration’s approach to Haiti remains “deeply flawed” and said his policy recommendations had been “ignored and dismissed, when not edited to project a narrative different from my own.” Foote had been on the job just two months. 

Penta-comers. Biden tapped three new nominees for top Pentagon roles this week. Carrie Ricci is the administration’s nominee to serve as the Army’s top civilian lawyer; longtime House Armed Services aide Douglas Bush is being elevated to assistant secretary of the army for acquisition, logistics, and technology (he’s currently serving in the role in an acting capacity); and Ashish Vazirani is the choice to be the Pentagon’s No. 2 official for personnel and readiness.

Penta-goers. The Biden administration has asked the Pentagon’s top nuclear policy official Leonor Tomero to resign in an effort to reorganize the agency’s policy shop and prioritize space, Politico first reported. Tomero, who only served eight months on the job, had previously gotten into hot water over an interview with the Asahi Shimbun where she said the United States would reexamine the costs of upgrading nuclear weaponry. (The Pentagon insisted she had been misquoted.)

Ambassador class. Biden is picking Erik Ramanathan to be U.S. ambassador to Sweden, Michael Adler as the top American diplomat in Belgium, and Calvin Smyre as ambassador to the Dominican Republic. The American Foreign Service Association reports that just two of Biden’s 61 picks to be U.S. ambassadors have been confirmed by the Senate since January. 


On the Button

What should be at the top of your radar, if it isn’t already.

China House. The State Department is dramatically expanding the number of officers assigned to monitor what Beijing is doing around the world, as we scooped this week. State is adding dozens of new officers in embassies abroad and at its main headquarters in Washington to keep an eye on Beijing’s political and diplomatic maneuverings, the latest organizational shuffle reflecting broader U.S.-China competition worldwide.

One former senior career diplomat, Susan Thornton, is against the move, however, saying it could hype and conflate threats from China and worsen already tense relations between Washington and Beijing.

Dire straits. Afghan refugees staying at U.S. military installations are facing food shortages, harassment, and a lack of proper heating as winter approaches. At Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army base in Wisconsin, women staying at the base told the Wisconsin State Journal that they have little to wear and eat, and have faced trouble from former U.S.-trained members of the Afghan National Army who have harassed women and skipped cafeteria lines.

“There are many people who don’t have anything to wear, anything to eat,” one Afghan woman said. Two refugees at Fort McCoy are also facing charges of sex crimes, one against a minor. 

Havana frights. After an aide to CIA Director Bill Burns reported symptoms consistent with the mysterious health issue known as Havana syndrome, the State Department is searching for a new top czar on the issue. That incident and the instances of the syndrome among U.S. diplomats in Hanoi just before Vice President Kamala Harris visited last month have led the CIA to start a hunt for those responsible, with the effort described as similar to the spy agency’s chase for Osama bin Laden.

McClatchy reports that Blinken is expected to name a replacement for Pamela Spratlen—who previously oversaw the Havana syndrome response and is now retiring—in the coming days.  

Workplace hostility. The Army’s top public affairs officer has been suspended from her job until further notice as the military service investigates charges of a hostile workplace.

Brig. Gen. Amy Johnston has been removed from her post in the wake of a workplace survey in which a staggering 97 percent of civilians and soldiers in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs for the Army reported “workplace hostility,” while two-thirds of employees said they were dealing with low morale. The survey also revealed possible incidents of racial and sexual harassment, Army Times reported on Wednesday night. 


Snapshot 

A Haitian migrant crosses the Rio Grande to get food and water in Mexico.

A Haitian migrant crosses the Rio Grande to get food and water in Mexico, as seen from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on Sept. 22. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador urged the United States on Wednesday to act quickly to tackle the causes of the migrant crisis affecting the two neighboring countries.Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images


AUK-what?

We asked you, our readers, to help rename the shoddily named AUKUS alliance last week, and you answered. 

Here’s our top pick: Reader David Silverman proposes adding Brazil to make it a Brazil-Australia-United Kingdom-United States lineup. “BAUKUS, with Brazil, and highlighted by a wine-soaked rich-man’s Carnival!” he writes. Sounds fun, count us in. 


Put On Your Radar

Tuesday, Sept. 28: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and U.S. Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie testify in the Senate about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. They will reprise that testimony the following day in the House. 


Quote of the Week

“The two leaders have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures toward common objectives.” —Readout of Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone call

Wondering what that word salad of a sentence actually means? So are we. 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

“Mad Dog” justice. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis was back in the news on Wednesday when he testified in a San Jose, California, court in the case of former Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Mattis, who was an investor in the blood-testing startup and eventually joined the board, said he and others were shocked to learn that Theranos had not been conducting tests with its own proprietary technology.  

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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