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The Drift

Navigation Brief

ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters

Time to put on your headphones and crank The Who.

Today I put up a story that I’ve been working on for a while that kept on getting kicked down the road because new things kept happening. But the gist of it was pretty much that the story wasn’t a story, and maybe that made it newsworthy.

Policy toward China, which is a topic the nautically inclined care a great deal about, seems to be holding steady under a new administration. On all the main hardline positions taken by the Trump Administration: Tariffs, the determination that China was committing genocide in Xinjiang and the formal rejection of China’s claims in the South China Sea, the Biden administration is holding firm.

That seemed to warrant a story and got me thinking about “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” perhaps apropos after previous Administrations favored a policy of direct engagement with China that has failed to drive it in a more democratic direction.

Here’s the story: In the South China Sea, it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’

There is a lot of b-roll on that story that I didn’t get to but it’s important, and since I filed that story more has happened.

So, for tonight’s Drift, I think I’d like to delve into the issue a bit deeper and I figure we should get right to it.

Let’s Drift!



China News Round-up

I’ve rarely adhered to the format that I envisioned for this email at the outset.

I thought it would be a kind of rough roadmap for upcoming hot issues, followed by a round-up of the news: Navigation Brief and Hotwash.

Hasn’t really worked out, this email is all over the place.

But this will be one of those occasions where I can live up to the format because the first 21 days of the Biden Administration have given us a kind of roadmap on what’s ahead with China, so this will be a Navigation Brief as originally envisioned.

I hope you’ll go back and read the story I posted today, because I think that’s a good basis for understanding the state of play today between the new Biden administration and China. But there are some more points to raise that I think will give us a better idea of what that means for DoD going forward.

Biden Calls Xi

Biden had a chat with Xi Jinping yesterday evening, and the contents of the conversation was in line with what we would expect: Pushback on crackdowns in Hong Kong, pushback on Xinjiang, pushback on threats to Taiwan – all followed by the typical Xi response that all that stuff is “internal affairs,” though that’s debatable when it comes to Taiwan.

But the more interesting stuff came from the reporting of a backgrounder they gave some White House press, so let me recount some of that for you, from NBC News:

Excerpt: Officials said the call was aimed at signaling a new U.S. strategy that maintains a core tenet of the Trump administration's policy — intense competition — but takes a dramatically different approach.

"We looked at what the Trump administration did over four years and found merit in the basic proposition of an intense strategic competition with China and the need for us to engage in that vigorously, systematically, across every instrument of our government and every instrument of our power," a senior administration official said. "But we found deep problems with the way in which the Trump administration went about that competition."

Officials said one difference in Biden's approach will be an emphasis on engaging with U.S. allies, both in Europe and in the Asia Pacific region. Biden is expected, for example, to attend international forums for countries in the region, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and the East Asia Summit, although it's unclear whether his appearances would be virtual given the pandemic. Former President Barack Obama regularly attended the ASEAN summit, for example, but Trump skipped it after his first year in office.

A second senior administration official said America's partners in Asia have expressed concerns about recent U.S. actions, including the unpredictability of the Trump administration and its "weird interactions with North Korea."

Officials were also adamant that Biden's China policy isn't a continuation of Trump's, saying he wasn't criticizing the toughness of Trump's approach but rather "that he was doing so alone while also fighting our allies and partners."

Read the whole article here: Biden raises concerns with Chinese president in first official phone call

I found the language about maintaining the “core tenet” of Trump’s policy while taking a dramatically different approach compelling and instructive. That’s been my sense of the Biden policy, and it tracks with their statements and actions so far.

I also found the language about “weird interactions with North Korea” funny, but honestly everything about North Korea is a little odd so maybe any interaction with North Korea is bound to be weird?


China Task Force

My colleague Aaron Mehta did some reporting on the new China Task Force set up by DoD. Here are the details he dug up.

Excerpt: It will be made up of “up to” 15 civilian and uniformed officials, and will be led by Ely Ratner, a former deputy national security adviser to Biden who joined the department as Austin’s special assistant on China.

Per a department fact sheet, the authors will take a deep dive into the department’s strategy; operational concepts; technology and force structure; force posture and force management; intelligence; alliances and partnerships; and military relations with China.

Under the Trump administration, the Defense Department shifted itself to focus more on China, with resources increasing to the Pacific and the creation of the new role of deputy assistant secretary of defense to solely focus on China.

Catch here is that there will not be any unclassified report on what the task force comes up with, which is a bit of a drag, but I suspect we’ll have some idea by what changes come about after it.

The task force is being describes as “a sprint,” per Aaron’s reporting, which is encouraging since a “study” would take two years, be repeatedly delayed and would result in something anodyne and convoluted.

It may yet turn into that, but let’s hope they can keep up the urgency.


New Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks had some interesting things to say about Defense Department priorities: Didn’t reveal much (that’s not the point of confirmation hearings) but enough to know what she’ll be thinking about. As it relates to great power competition (read: China), she did have some answers about the kinds of things she would be focusing her attention on. From the hearing:

Hicks: Senator, I think I would, if confirmed, need to get in and really look at the threat assessments in terms of what we're seeing from China, Russia, and others as well as how the advancement of U.S. capabilities is going. There are obviously programs that I am not privy to, in my current capacity, that I would want to understand better how they're being integrated into departments thinking about operational concepts. I would say, in general terms, areas that concern me are quantum computing advances, hypersonic missile capabilities and technology, and challenges, perhaps, to the U.S. asymmetric advantages in the undersea domain.

Later in the hearing, Hicks discussed ways she thinks the department can move quicker toward fielding new capabilities. The key, she said, would be to get new things into exercises quickly to figure out if a new concept is worth pursuing.

Hicks: I agree with you that there has been some positive momentum in key areas of R&D and I do think a sustained level of R&D investment is vital. But, also to your point, we actually have to field capabilities and that's a place where DoD has really struggled.

Some of the tools that the deputy could have, working especially with the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is to develop some incentive approaches to get field experiments underway, even beyond experiments up to major exercise-level use of capabilities and prototypes that can start to demonstrate the value of some of these new approaches.


And, when we can demonstrate value, then we're in a much better position to have a dialogue with Congress and with industry about where those capabilities can take us, and that can help us overcome that valley of death.


And that’s it for tonight. On to The Hotwash!


The Hotwash

We’ll just roll right into the links tonight, since we kind of had a Hotwash in the Nav brief? Weird.

More Reading

Spain’s Navantia joins industry team for European Patrol Corvette

The tiny tech lab that put AI on a spyplane has another secret project

Costs Of Cruise Missile Defense May Top Benefits, Suggests CBO

Admiral: No Abnormal Responses from China After Dual-Carrier Drills

A French Navy SSN Patrolled The South China Sea

Philippine Navy Welcomes New Frigate As It Reaches Home Waters

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