Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! This week, Jack is reporting on the road, traveling with the U.S. secretary of defense on his big trip to Asia, while Robbie endures the opening wave of summer humidity back in Washington.
Here’s what’s on tap for the day: high stakes for Austin’s big trip to Southeast Asia to court the region amid competition with China, Israel upgrades its war plans for possible attacks on Iran, and the Army picks a new commander for Europe and Africa.
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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s E-4B aircraft is this reporter’s home for the next nine days as the Pentagon chief travels across Southeast Asia and Europe, another major test of whether the Biden administration can walk and chew gum when it comes to managing China’s military rise even as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues to suck up all of the oxygen in Washington. Oh, and we almost forgot: North Korea is threatening to conduct a nuclear test any minute now.
With all of that tumult thousands of feet below Austin’s jet, his top advisors were furiously readying the message for the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the Pentagon chief’s next stop, where they intend to insist that the U.S.-established rules of the road still matter.
“Ukraine looms in the background of this, principally as an example of the dangers of disorder,” a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon, told reporters as the secretary’s jet streaked across the Pacific Ocean after one of three midair refuelings on the 20-hour trip that forced some on the plane to pop nausea pills.
(Full disclosure: James Crabtree, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, which organizes the Shangri-La Dialogue, is an FP columnist.)
Your trusty Pentagon reporter has been mostly sworn to secrecy about the goings-on aboard the converted 747 jumbo jet with a small hump atop the fuselage that could serve as a nuclear command center if an American adversary destroyed the White House or the Pentagon.
But from where I sit, in the cheap seats, it’s akin to flying through the sky in a windowless 1980s-era Pentagon office cubicle, complete with flickering digital clocks and dial-out control panels that look like pay phones.
The low-profile Austin himself is mostly out of sight. But that is likely to change in Singapore, where he is set to meet Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and top Japanese, Australian, and South Korean officials, as well as his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. If that sounds like a lot, it is. The Shangri-La Dialogue, which takes place at a hotel of the same name, is probably the closest diplomatic equivalent to speed dating.
But even if the Pentagon isn’t keen to make headlines here, America’s friends and allies can decide to publicly connect in front of an audience of thousands of experts at Singapore’s massive Shangri-La hotel. Here is what you should be looking for at the high-stakes conference, according to about a half-dozen officials and experts Foreign Policy talked to in the lead-up.
Wei cool. Austin’s first in-person meeting with Wei—a little more than a month after their first phone call—will take place at Shangri-La, just as China continues serious military muscle-flexing: sending historic numbers of fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, hosting massive military exercises, and appearing keen on securing military basing agreements in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
“The dominant trend that we see currently is one of self-isolating behavior by the PRC,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “In the region, almost every neighbor of the PRC itself, is raising major concerns about PRC assertiveness, PRC aggression, in the East China Sea, South China Sea, the Line of Actual Control, down in Oceania, and countries are responding by wanting to enhance their own capabilities, wanting to deepen their own partnership with the United States.”
Ream-ed out. In the wake of the Washington Post scoop that China is developing Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base for military purposes, something that U.S. officials long expected, the long-standing American frenemy in Southeast Asia is likely to face tough questions at the conference. “What we are calling for, what the region is calling for is more transparency,” the senior U.S. defense official said about China’s ongoing activities at Ream.
Southeast Asian allies will also likely want to see the United States respond after the announcement—something that the State Department tried to stave off in heated meetings with the Cambodians—as well as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s eight-day sojourn in the Pacific Islands that just wrapped up. “That trip was just intended to stir things up,” said Brent Sadler, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “It was more to cause people to ask questions and sow a little confusion.”
Man of the hour. You ever heard of Volodymyr Zelensky? Well, people in Southeast Asia sure know the Ukrainian president by now. He’s set to beam in to address the conference, as Kyiv wants to make sure that these countries aren’t undermining crushing sanctions against Russia.
But some Southeast Asian nations, while having concerns about food and gas prices, have struggled to condemn Russia’s invasion, with ties to Moscow dating far back into the Cold War. So the name of the game may be caution, not the soaring rhetoric about defending democracy we’ve come to expect from the Biden administration on Ukraine.
“I’ll be looking to see if the Europeans and [Austin] moderate their tone on Ukraine to focus less on ideology and more on pocketbook issues, which might go down better here,” said Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is hosting the conference.
The Army has picked Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams to be the next commander of U.S. Army Europe and Africa. Williams, currently the superintendent of West Point, will require confirmation by the Senate to step into the new role.
Benjamin Rimland is the new senior advisor to the defense secretary for AUKUS policy, as Politico first reported.
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
When you assume… Across NATO, defense planners have to rethink their assumptions about what a NATO-Russia war would look like after Russia’s dismal performance in Ukraine, as Robbie and our colleague Amy Mackinnon reported this week. Russia’s military massively underperformed based on what Western military analysts predicted, but at the same time the West massively underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brazenness and brutality.
The upshot: Just because outmanned and outgunned Ukrainians held their own against Russian forces doesn’t mean NATO can breathe easy quite yet.
Just in case. Israel is stepping up its plans and exercises to take on Iran militarily in the event of a conflict. As the Jerusalem Post reports this week, Israel has made dramatic upgrades to its airpower, with new developments that allow the Israeli Air Force’s stealth F-35 fighter jets to strike targets in Iran without requiring midair refueling. This comes as Tehran steadily expands its production of uranium to produce nuclear weapons, with efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal on life support.
Taking their shot. The Biden administration believes that North Korea is preparing another nuclear test, a second senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters Thursday while traveling above the Pacific.
North Korea has conducted six intercontinental ballistic missile tests since January, a period that U.S. officials are calling the “most active period” in North Korea’s missile program. “North Korea’s behavior is destabilizing, it is dangerous, it is a violation of multiple U.N. security council resolutions,” the senior defense official said.
Sunday, June 12: France holds its parliamentary elections.
Wednesday, June 15: U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and top National Security Council official Brett McGurk testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Iran’s nuclear program.
Wednesday-Thursday, June 15-16: NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels.
“It’s all very dry, I’m afraid.”
—Elliot Metcalfe, director of the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester, England, describing the last surviving food ration packs from Allied forces landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
Fox, meet henhouse. North Korea temporarily assumed the presidency of a top international nuclear disarmament forum at the United Nations, as the BBC reported, sparking some pretty obvious criticism.
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