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Chinese and Russian Naval Patrol Nears Alaskan Coast
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Chinese and Russian Naval Patrol Nears Alaskan Coast

‘It seems obvious to me that Xi Jinping is preparing his country for war.’

Happy Tuesday! A funeral home in El Salvador is offering customers the option to buy hot pink coffins with photos of Barbie embroidered along the interior lining, in case you’re interested in that kind of thing.

If you are interested in that kind of thing, please stay far, far away from us and our families.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories 

  • A group of American scientists said Sunday that they had achieved net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the second time. The researchers at the federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California first achieved the breakthrough—which could pave the way for limitless nuclear energy without the need for uranium—in December, but they said their experiment nine days ago produced even more energy than the initial one.
  • The U.S. Navy deployed more than 3,000 troops to the Red Sea on Sunday in response to aggressive action by Iran toward civilian vessels in recent months. The Associated Press reported late last week that the Pentagon is considering whether to put armed personnel on commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz as tensions between the two countries escalate.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this weekend he planned to forgo the remaining pieces of his controversial judicial overhaul plan. Aside from a plan to change the composition of the committee that selects judges, he told Bloomberg TV Sunday that he wouldn’t push the rest of the package. “That’s basically what’s left because other things I think we should not legislate,” he said.
  • Three ships capsized in the Mediterranean Sea over the weekend, leaving more than 80 people missing and at least 10 dead. Several accidents involving migrant vessels in Europe have ended in devastation in recent months, including one off the coast of Greece that is presumed to have killed hundreds in June.
  • Italy appears to be backing away from its membership in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which would remove one of the only major Western economies to join. Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto recently criticized the decision to join the initiative four years ago as an “improvised and atrocious act,” hinting that the government is looking for a way out “without damaging relations.” 
  • Ukrainian security services claimed Monday they had detained an informant in a Russian plot to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky. The informant was attempting to share details about Zelensky’s visit to Mykolaiv—a region in southern Ukraine—in preparation for a Russian airstrike on the area, according to Ukrainian officials.
  • Jeff Gunter, a former U.S. ambassador to Iceland during the Trump administration, announced Monday he is running as a Republican to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen in Nevada. Gunter joins a growing GOP primary field, including former Nevada Secretary of State Jim Marchant and military veteran Sam Brown. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has voiced approval for Brown’s bid. 
  • Mike Pence’s presidential campaign announced Monday the former vice president had secured enough individual donors to qualify for the first Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee on August 23. Eight candidates have now qualified for the debate: Pence, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Chris Christie, and Doug Burgum.

China Continues Testing United States’ Mettle

Chinese naval vessels during joint drills with Russia near the Peter the Great Gulf on October 15, 2021, in Russia. (Photo by Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)
Chinese naval vessels during joint drills with Russia near the Peter the Great Gulf on October 15, 2021, in Russia. (Photo by Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)

It’s been a big year for shady activity by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since January alone, the American public has learned of a Chinese spy balloon over the United States, a secret police outpost in Manhattan, a listening station in Cuba, and People’s Liberation Army pilots and sailors picking fights with U.S. military planes and ships in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

Following a post-balloon freeze in relations, the Biden administration has been pursuing a diplomatic detente in an effort to find areas where Washington and Beijing can work together—and establish high-level, fail-safe levers to avoid any potential crises. But revelations about Chinese espionage and intimidation efforts continue: The last month has seen an ominous trifecta of hacking U.S. officials’ emails, tag-teaming naval operation off the coast of Alaska, and bribing U.S. service members to spy for the CCP. China’s pattern of bad behavior is leaving President Joe Biden open to criticism of his pursuit of what could be ever-dwindling common ground. 

With relations between the two countries potentially nearing an all-time low, the Biden administration has spent this record-hot summer trying to warm things up with China, dispatching several high-ranking officials to Beijing. As we reported at the time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken officially broke the seal on diplomatic visits in June—though it was later reported that CIA Director William Burns made a secret visit to the country in May. John Kerry, the administration’s climate envoy, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen were both in Beijing in July, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is headed there this month. 

Raimondo—whose portfolio includes trade issues related to China, such as various export controls on certain goods bound for the country—is an interesting candidate for a visit to Beijing, considering she was one of the highest-profile targets of a significant hacking effort by the Chinese government in June, right around the time of Bilinken’s trip to Beijing. “We’re planning the trip now, which doesn’t mean that we excuse any kind of hacking or infringement on our security,” Raimondo told CNBC in July. “We need to be ferocious in the way we protect American national security, but also de-escalate tension where we can and look for ways that we can work together.” 

The breach, which U.S. officials confirmed in July, compromised Raimondo’s unclassified email account, as well as the accounts of U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who traveled with Blinken during the secretary’s June trip. The sophisticated hack apparently exploited a weakness in Microsoft’s cloud computing system, but it’s unclear if the hackers successfully accessed sensitive national security information.

It’s not the first time China has gone fishing in the systems of the U.S. and its allies. In the fall of 2020, according to a Washington Post report Monday, the National Security Agency (NSA) discovered significant Chinese hacking activity compromising Japan’s classified defense networks. U.S. officials considered the situation so dire that, in the waning days of the Trump administration, then-Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger and Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, hopped on a plane to Tokyo to deliver the bad news to the Japanese defense minister in person. The Chinese reportedly accessed military plans, force capabilities, and vulnerability assessments from the most important U.S. ally in East Asia. Though Tokyo has attempted to strengthen its networks in the years since, the breach could still threaten deep intelligence sharing between the two allies.

China has allies, too—a point it made loud and clear last week when a flotilla of Russian and Chinese ships steamed shockingly close to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. A combined 11 ships from the two countries’ navies executed a provocative patrol, before being escorted out of the area by four U.S. warships and P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft. The Russian and Chinese ships never entered U.S. territorial waters and U.S. North Command said they were never considered a threat, but it was still a bold move. “I think the obvious thing that stands out is the increasing coordination between these two countries, which historically are strange bedfellows, but now have a shared alliance against America and our allies that’s designed to take us down [and] to undermine American global leadership,” Mike Gallagher, chairman of the House Select Committee on the CCP, tells TMD. “The second thing is just how aggressive and how brazen this is, in our own backyard.”

There are still no military-to-military talks between the U.S. and China, which China curtailed after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan a year ago, increasing the stakes for every interaction between the two countries’ warfighters. The U.S. response last week, which the foreign vessels may have been trying to probe, was much more muscular than the last time Russia and China floated their ships off the coast of Alaska almost a year ago. In September 2022, seven warships crossed into U.S. waters and faced only a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. The state of affairs is reminiscent of the Cold War, when “both sides would regularly do flights—whether it was bomber flights or naval transits—with the idea of understanding how the other side would respond,” Mark Cozad, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, tells TMD

Such incursions aren’t the only way China has been gathering information about the U.S. Navy, however. Last week, the Department of Justice separately indicted two American sailors stationed in California on charges of handing over U.S. national security information to Chinese intelligence officers in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribes. The sailors—Jinchao “Patrick” Wei and Wengheng “Thomas” Zhao, both in their 20s—held security clearances that gave them access to ship and radar system specs and plans for U.S. military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region, which they shared with their handlers. How much damage could two young sailors do? “A lot of seemingly mundane details about day-to-day operations, and routine, and relatively benign types of processes and materials can go a long way in helping intelligence analysts from an enemy” understand vulnerabilities, patterns, and where to strike next, says Cozad, who formerly worked in the intelligence community. 

In this era of competition with China, the latest revelations are likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the CCP’s spying efforts. “It’s not just those two [sailors],” Cozad tells TMD. “China is not a benign actor. They have one of the most aggressive—if not the most aggressive—intelligence collection activities out of any competitor or adversary that we have.”

China’s aggressive behavior has Biden’s political opponents and China hawks arguing he’s not doing enough. “Biden continues to show weakness,” Nikki Haley, GOP presidential candidate and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Fox News Monday, bashing Blinken’s trip to Beijing. Former Vice President Mike Pence, too, felt the flotilla was a symptom of a bigger problem. “Under President Biden, Russia and China threaten to conquer their neighbors & their new Axis is now operating together off the American coast,” he tweeted Monday

Speaking with reporters on Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Gen. Pat Ryder did his best to project calm. “I think that it’s no surprise to anyone that China and Russia continue to look at ways to cooperate,” he said, adding he didn’t believe any troop deployments had been triggered in response to the incident. “We’ll continue to monitor this situation and act appropriately.”

But in Gallagher’s view, the U.S. is being tested—and it’s a test we can’t afford to fail. “It seems obvious to me that Xi Jinping is preparing his country for war,” he tells TMD. “Like he’s repeatedly told us, he intends to take Taiwan by force if necessary, and he’s probing with bayonets. If [he finds] steel, he’ll stop, but if he finds mush, he’s going to continue to push. That’s how Marxist-Leninist regimes operate.”

Worth Your Time

  • Charlie Kirk and his organization, Turning Point USA, have become some of the most powerful forces among young people on the right—and that’s not good. “The energy of young conservatives is squarely behind the combative nature of politics that Kirk endorses,” Scott Howard, a student at the University of Florida, writes for National Review. “It is tempting to look at Kirk and the circumstances that have put air beneath his wings and conclude that such a man should be welcomed as a representative of American conservatism broadly. Such an acquiescence to Kirk’s prominence would be wrong, however. He engages in reckless rhetoric that disgraces the conservative cause. He indulges people who would otherwise be left to the fringe of American politics. He parrots the worst lies perpetuated by his patron in Mar-a-Lago and thereby does immense damage to the conservative movement among younger Americans.”
  • Tish Harrison Warren, a religion writer and Anglican priest, explains why she’s leaving her New York Times opinion newsletter behind. “There is danger in becoming a pundit, particularly on matters of faith and spirituality,” she writes. “For any person of faith, public engagement must be balanced with times of withdrawal, of silence, prayer, questioning and wonder beyond the reach of words. Otherwise, faith with all its strange and startling topology becomes a flat and sterile thing, something to be dissected, instead of embraced. And typically once something is fit only for dissection, it is dead. I bring this up because it is a temptation for all of us now. Social media and digital technology have made us all pundits.” Informed public debate is crucial to our civic life, but the constant back and forth of online discussion and arguments can go too far, Warren argues. “Don’t get me wrong: Global and national news is important and I will continue to read news and opinion pieces nearly every day,” she writes. “But for me, as for most of us, the places we meet God—the places we become human—are not primarily in abstract debates about culture wars or the role of religion in society, but in worship on a Sunday morning or in dropping off soup for a grieving friend, in a vulnerable conversation or in making breakfast at the homeless shelter down the street, in celebration with a neighbor or in the drowsy prayers uttered while rocking a feverish toddler in the middle of the night.”

Presented Without Comment

The Athletic: [Baltimore] Orioles Suspend Announcer Kevin Brown Over Comment About Baltimore’s Lack of Success at [Tampa Bay] Rays

Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! Kevin will be joined by Warren, Charlotte, Grayson, and Mary to discuss the news of the week and, of course, take plenty of viewer questions! Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to tune in.
  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team looks at Mike Pence’s attempt to capitalize on his time in the spotlight, Kevin argues (🔒) Trump’s continued popularity with Republican voters is damning for the GOP, and Nick dives into (🔒) the more aggressive January 6 rhetoric from Trump’s Republican rivals.
  • On the podcasts: UC Berkeley law professor Orin Kerr joins David and Sarah on a new episode of Advisory Opinions to explain how Fourth Amendment jurisprudence applies to a digital age.
  • On the site: Charlotte has the latest on the prospect of wider war in Africa after the coup in Niger, Stirewalt writes on the allure of “someone else” for the GOP, and Kevin Carroll reminds readers how scary a bullet we dodged with Trump’s post-election schemes.

Let Us Know

Back in January, Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan sent a memo to officers predicting the United States would be at war with China in 2025. Do you think that timeline is realistic?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Jacob Wendler is an intern for The Dispatch.