Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack and Robbie here. We’ve got a special guest star this week, Rishi Iyengar, our global tech reporter, who’s helping us make sense of the U.S.-China tech race.
Hope everyone on the East Coast is weathering the week OK with all the wildfire smoke from Canada. (Wednesday marked the third-worst wildfire pollution day in recorded U.S. history—so far). Here are some tips on precautions to take when outside as the smoke plumes continue to pass over us through Friday.
Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: China may be beating out Team AUKUS on the global tech race, Cuba agrees to host a new Chinese spy base, Sweden inches closer to finally joining NATO, and more.
The tally of the AUKUS alliance’s technology advantages over China is in. And the results are, in two words, not good.
That’s according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a Canberra-based think tank that looked at 23 technologies likely to be critical to the second pillar of the AUKUS alliance, which will focus on hypersonic weapons, quantum technology, and cybersecurity, among other emerging tech.
The Aussie organization in a new study found that China has the lead over AUKUS nations on 19 out of 23 of the fields critical to the alliance. And it’s not a small advantage, either.
“In hypersonics, undersea capabilities, and electronic warfare, China’s leads are so emphatic they create a significant risk that China might dominate future technological breakthroughs in these areas,” ASPI said in a press release announcing the scorecard. “The combined strength of the three AUKUS nations puts them in close competition with China in about half of the tracked technologies, including quantum communications, advanced data analytics, and machine learning.”
The report caused quite the splash in Washington, where everyone seems to be hyper-fixated on the burgeoning tech race between the United States and China that could define which side gains the upper hand in the era of great-power competition.
But there’s a but. Even though China can dump enormous amounts of money into high-impact national security research without pesky oversight mechanisms like, say, Congress, the AUKUS allies aren’t beaten everywhere. In fields such as autonomous systems operations, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence reverse engineering, and cyber protection “the collective strength of the AUKUS countries shifts this picture, and they take the global lead,” the think tank wrote.
Friendship is rare, and the more, the merrier. “A slightly larger grouping of countries would change the picture even further,” the think tank added.
And a lot of room for debate. Some other experts aren’t thrilled about ASPI’s characterizations in this report and say Team America has a lot less to be stressed about than the report would otherwise indicate. The Australian think tank’s methodology measures high-impact research by collecting and analyzing the top 10 percent of the most-cited papers on critical technology. They think that ASPI missed a lot of the innovation and entrepreneurship that’s going on in the United States and among its allies outside of the academic world.
“Public research output is not at all the same as innovation or capital technology leadership,” said Emily Weinstein, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology who focuses on U.S.-China tech competition. “Research is just one way to assess a country’s innovative capacity, but it has to be looked at in conjunction with other metrics—things like patenting or investment going into that country and that specific sector of technology.”
And it may just be too early to tell who has the lead. “At just a super fundamental level, China has more people, so of course they’re possibly going to publish more papers,” Weinstein added. “For me, it’s hard to make the argument that China is leading in quantum because the technology has not been fully realized. If it’s an emerging technology, it’s not established and it’s pretty hard to define anyway.”
A U.S.-China “thaw”? This debate comes against the backdrop of a much larger battle playing out in Washington on how to manage relations with Beijing and find ways to try to ease tensions in the short term.
And for what it’s worth, the Biden administration wants you to keep all of your Cold War metaphors to yourself. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is finally set to make a high-stakes visit to China in the coming weeks that was postponed after a spy balloon flew over much of the United States and Canada in late January and early February. President Joe Biden vowed to push for a “thaw” in relations between the two superpowers. And U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns told the Wire China this week that China is “signaling great interest” to resume economic discussions.
But the warm(ish) words from Washington are being taken with a big grain of salt in Beijing, as our colleague James Palmer writes this week in China Brief (another great FP newsletter that you should definitely subscribe to if you haven’t already), owing to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s overriding feeling that the United States is out to get him and fundamental misunderstandings of how Washington works. Chinese leaders “often don’t recognize how messy and varied U.S. policymaking is—thanks to their lack of experience with separation of powers and multiparty systems,” Palmer writes.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. Carlos A. Ruiz has been named the next sergeant major of the Marine Corps. Ruiz will replace Sgt. Maj. Troy E. Black as the devil dogs’ top enlisted leader.
Joel Linnainmaki, a former advisor to Finland’s top diplomat, has moved over to think tank land as a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs focused on Finnish foreign policy, NATO, and Northern European security.
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Last piece of the puzzle. Western defense officials and diplomats tell SitRep they are increasingly hopeful that Sweden will join NATO by this summer and that there’s an end in sight to the Turkey-sized impasse over this round of NATO expansion. What would Sweden joining NATO actually mean for the alliance? We’ve got you covered. Too lazy to click the link? Here’s a small preview: For starters, it would make rushing military assets to NATO’s vulnerable Baltic flank way easier with Sweden in the alliance. On the geostrategic side of things, adding Sweden to the alliance would transform the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake,” thereby rendering Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet effectively inert. Sweden also has the Nordic region’s largest defense industrial base, something NATO officials are hungry to start tapping into in a bid to help boost Europe’s dwindling supplies of ammunition.
A Cold War 2.0 Cuba crisis. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union leveraged its relationship with Cuba and its proximity to the United States, most famously revealed during the Cuban missile crisis. Now Washington’s new geopolitical archrival, China, is reportedly looking to do the same. The Wall Street Journal reports that China clinched a covert deal with Cuba to host a spy base on the Caribbean island nation, focused on electronic eavesdropping that could target U.S. military installations across the southeastern United States. (Reminder: U.S. Southern Command is based in southern Florida.) History may not repeat itself, but it does seem to rhyme, doesn’t it?
No end in sight. Fighting between warring factions in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum have intensified after repeated failed efforts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to broker a cease-fire. The Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, have struggled to gain the upper hand over paramilitary forces led by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo. We’ve written previously on how Sudan was at one point a shining beacon of the global democracy movement, and how it all fell apart when fighting erupted in April, thanks in part to fumbled U.S. diplomacy. Now Burhan’s forces are fighting to defend a sprawling military-industrial complex with large supply and ammunition stocks in southern Khartoum, the latest sign that this conflict could spiral into an all-out civil war. The humanitarian toll from these two commanders’ fight for power has been devastating.
Today: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is set to travel to the Bahamas to hold talks with Caribbean leaders. Meanwhile, her boss, President Joe Biden, is hosting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the White House.
Over in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to address a meeting of the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State.
Wednesday, June 14: Dan Kritenbrink, the State Department’s top Asia official, is set to testify before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee just days after returning from China. He’s the first top Biden administration official to travel to China in months.
“I’m planning on being in the PGA.”
—U.S. President Joe Biden reacts to the news of the merger of the PGA Tour with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf in a joining of golf giants at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
“They’re trying to do good for the world and showcase themselves in a light that hasn’t been seen in a while. Nobody’s perfect, but we’re all trying to improve in life.”
—Golfer Bryson DeChambeau, who joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf as an early recruit last year, addresses the PGA-LIV merger when asked on CNN about Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses.
The enemy of my enemy? The feud between the factions of Russia’s military forces in Ukraine is evidently heating up. The Russian mercenary group Wagner captured a man who identified himself as a Russian lieutenant colonel and forced him to confess on video that he ordered Russian troops under his command to fire on Wagner forces while he was intoxicated.