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.

China’s Redrawn Maritime Map Is Out of Line

China’s contested maritime claims are ramping up tensions in the region.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A satellite view of the Crescent Group of islands.
A satellite view of the Crescent Group of islands.
A satellite view of the Crescent Group of islands, which is part of the disputed Paracel Islands located in the South China Sea, is seen. Visible here are Antelope Reef, Pattle Island, Drummond Island, Duncan Island, Palm Island, Robert Island, Observation Bank, and Money Island on Jan. 22, 2016. USGS/NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Lacking motivation to close out the week? Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top arms control negotiator, Sergei Ryabkov, is jamming to singers Kanye West and Lady Gaga to keep his spirits up.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: The U.S. State Department has a bone to pick with China’s maritime claims, Congress is squabbling over Nord Stream 2 sanctions, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s deputies are telling Russia to back off regarding Ukraine.

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

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Lacking motivation to close out the week? Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top arms control negotiator, Sergei Ryabkov, is jamming to singers Kanye West and Lady Gaga to keep his spirits up.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: The U.S. State Department has a bone to pick with China’s maritime claims, Congress is squabbling over Nord Stream 2 sanctions, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s deputies are telling Russia to back off regarding Ukraine.

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


U.S. State Department Calls Out China Over South China Sea Claims

The Biden administration is pushing China to bring its maritime claims in the South China Sea in line with international law, U.S. State Department officials said on Wednesday, after the agency flagged that many of Beijing’s assertions run afoul of United Nations conventions.

In a report released on Wednesday, the State Department indicated many Chinese claims are out of bounds, which are particularly relevant to Beijing’s desires to shore up more space in the South China Sea.

The State Department said China has flouted the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (which, unlike the United States, it has signed on to) by making sovereign claims to reefs and underwater features, drawing straight lines around spread-out islands, and using historical justifications to lay down maritime claims, even though the U.N. convention doesn’t recognize such claims. A 2016 international tribunal in The Hague said China’s historical claims in the South China Sea were without merit.

That push would invalidate many of China’s major geographic claims in the South China Sea, such as the straight baselines Beijing drew around the Paracel Islands in 1996. It would also take issue with the notion that China can lay claim to huge chunks of the sea, as it has tried to do around the Spratly Islands, since neither underwater nor below-tidal features generate exclusive economic zones under international law. “We call on [China] to conform its claims to international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a tweet.

The United Nations also puts limits on the maximum ratio of water to land area that can be enclosed within a legally consolidated archipelago as 9 to 1, limits China has far exceeded in both the Paracels and the Spratlys. “The overall effect of these maritime claims is that [China] unlawfully claims sovereignty or some form of exclusive jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea,” the State Department said in the report.

​​It’s no surprise the United States opposes China’s claims in the South China Sea, a position that dates back to the Obama administration, but the latest report provides the most comprehensive look yet at how China is carving out its influence and territory in the geopolitical hotbed.

Some experts think the State Department has now thrown down the gauntlet that will become standard fare for arguing against China’s territorial claims. “It will be a standard reference for future discussions on the legality of China’s claims in the South China Sea,” tweeted Bill Hayton, an expert on maritime disputes in the region.


Let’s Get Personnel

The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a nomination hearing for a trio of Biden’s Defense Department nominees today: Celeste Wallander to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Melissa Dalton to be assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, and John Plumb to serve as assistant secretary of defense for space policy.

Arun Seraphin, a professional staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, is joining the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute as deputy director.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Nord Stream 2. Remember that Russian pipeline project that made everyone in Washington mad at one another? There’s a big vote in the Senate today on whether to force the Biden administration to slap more sanctions on the project, led by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and supported by top Ukrainian officials. Congressional aides tell SitRep it is likely to fail, but it could be a nail-biter of a vote.

Another bill put forward by Democrats—which gives Biden more leeway to engage European allies on the pipeline, change Ukraine relations, and effectively supplant Cruz’s proposal—is expected to be voted on in the coming weeks.

Quit talking to Assad. Bipartisan leaders in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee this week sent a letter to Biden voicing concern over his administration not doing enough to prevent U.S. friends in the Middle East from reopening relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Your Administration should consider consequences for any nation that seeks to rehabilitate the Assad regime,” the lawmakers wrote.

Stocking up. Lithuania, the tiny Baltic NATO and European Union member, is working to stock up multiple launch rocket systems at a faster timetable than previously planned due to Russia’s amassing of forces on Ukraine’s border. The decision, reported by Defense News, underscores how Russia’s brinkmanship with Ukraine has rattled Eastern European allies and pushed the Biden administration toward considering more military deployments in the region.

INF’d Up. While U.S. officials remain worried about the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been renewed hints of interest in kick-starting an arms control deal resembling the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty from both the Biden administration and the Kremlin at arms control talks this week.

On Monday, the State Department’s No. 2 official, Wendy Sherman, said Russia had addressed the concerns that led to the INF Treaty’s demise during the Trump administration but provided few details. Moscow has floated a possible ban on INF-range missiles in Europe at arms control talks in exchange for reciprocal steps, such as being allowed to inspect U.S. missile defense sites in Eastern Europe.


Snapshot 

Military hardware board an Ilyushin Il-76MD military transport aircraft carrying Kyrgyz peacekeepers before departing from the Kant military air base for a Russian-led “peacekeeping mission” in Kazakhstan.
Military hardware board an Ilyushin Il-76MD military transport aircraft carrying Kyrgyz peacekeepers before departing from the Kant military air base for a Russian-led “peacekeeping mission” in Kazakhstan.

Military hardware board an Ilyushin Il-76MD military transport aircraft carrying Kyrgyz peacekeepers before departing from the Kant military air base for a Russian-led “peacekeeping mission” in Kazakhstan following mass unrest in the country.Russian Defence Ministry\TASS via Getty Images


Hot Mic

What would de-escalating tensions on the Ukrainian border look like for the Biden administration? On Monday, Sherman tried to break it down in a back-and-forth conversation with reporters.

Matt Lee, Associated Press reporter: I want to know what it is that you guys think is de-escalation. Is it removing all of the troops or some of the troops from the border? Because I’m mindful of the context of all of this—Georgia and 2014—but these Russian troops are in Russian territory. They haven’t actually gone anywhere yet. So what is it that would amount … to de-escalation for you guys?

Sherman: It’s really what I said before: Return the troops to barracks or tell us what exercises are ongoing and what their purpose is. That’s not at all clear. One doesn’t normally send 100,000 troops to a border just to sort of exercise. It’s quite extraordinary, and it is all on the border of Ukraine. So clearly, it was meant to send a decisive message.


Put On Your Radar

Today: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Permanent Council is meeting in Vienna to discuss Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border.

Wednesday, Jan. 26: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin brief senators in a closed session on U.S. policy in Afghanistan.


Quote of the week

“I wasn’t sure he was understanding me. Then he said, ‘Well, will I oink?’”

—Bartley Griffith, director of cardiac transplants at the University of Michigan medical system, explains to the New York Times how a patient who received a heart from a genetically modified pig reacted to the news. 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Star turn. Monday’s Dallas City Council meeting took a turn for the weird when a scrubs-clad man took to the microphone to give an R&B-tinted missive on vaccines that, well, you have to see to believe.

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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