Defense & National Security — China biggest priority during top officials’ trips

While Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met on the sidelines in Cambodia with China’s defense minister on Tuesday, Vice President Harris the same day spoke in support of international norms from the South China Sea. 

We’ll share the details of each trip and what was said, plus a new military medical clinic set up to address health issues believed to be related to the Red Hill fuel leak last year in Hawaii and ramped up scrutiny of Iran’s military and weapons production amid the Russia-Ukraine war.  

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you?

Austin warns of Beijing’s ‘dangerous behavior’

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met on the sidelines in Cambodia with China’s defense minister on Tuesday to discuss global security tensions and to urge his counterpart in Beijing to keep an open line of communication. 

The two discussed conflicts relating to Taiwan, North Korea, the potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and Chinese aircraft flyovers in the Indo-Pacific, according to a readout provided by the Defense Department. 

Timing: Austin’s meeting with Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s minister of national defense, was the second face-to-face meeting the two have had in the past six months. 

  • It comes after President Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month at the G-20 conference, where the two emphasized there would not be a new Cold War amid economic competition and geopolitical tensions. 
  • Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Senior Col. Tan Kefei said at a news conference that the meeting between Austin and Wei on Tuesday served “as a concrete measure to implement the important consensus reached between Xi and Biden.” 

A meeting: Both Wei and Austin were in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a meeting of defense ministers hosted by the Association of Southeast Asia Nations. 

Agreements: Austin and Wei agreed that the U.S. government and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) oppose the use of nuclear weapons in war, comments that come amid rising concerns about Russia potentially preparing to use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned he might deploy a nuclear weapon in Ukraine amid heavy setbacks for the Russian army, although Russia has since distanced itself from those threats. 

Austin also pushed China to fully enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions against North Korea. 

Clear commitments: On the issue of Taiwan, Austin made clear the U.S. is committed to the Taiwan Relations Act, which acknowledges the self-governing island is part of China but commits to unofficial relations with Taiwan. 

According to the readout, in his meeting with Wei, Austin “underscored his opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo and called on the PRC to refrain from further destabilizing actions toward Taiwan.” 

Read the full story here 


Vice President Harris on Tuesday spoke out against unnamed threats to local fishing communities and international norms during a speech from the South China Sea, where China’s expanding claims are fueling tension with Southeast Asian countries and the United States. 

“We must stand up for principles such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the freedom of navigation and overflight,” Harris said aboard a Coast Guard ship in Puerto Princesa, Philippines. 

“As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” she said. 

Some background: Beijing has opposed U.S. Navy and Air Force patrols in the South China Sea and claims complete sovereign rights in the waterway, despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling that found China did not have historical, exclusive control in much of the region. 

China has also built artificial islands in the South China Sea to the serious objections of nearby nations. 

Harris on Tuesday said the U.S. will steadfastly support the territorial integrity of the Philippines. 

Read that story here 

Navy to open clinic one year after Hawaii fuel leak

The Navy will open a medical clinic in Pearl Harbor for individuals with health problems believed to be tied to last year’s fuel leaks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii that contaminated a water supply in Oahu, sickening thousands.  

“We’re establishing the Red Hill Clinic, which is a safe place where our dedicated care teams will work with our patients to document what is happening to them and together determine what the best path forward is for them and their family’s health care,” Jennifer Espiritu, the interim public health emergency officer for the Defense Health Agency, told reporters Monday.   

Limited details: The clinic will go in a yet-to-be-announced military treatment facility on the island and be staffed with health care workers from the Navy, Army and Air Force, Espiritu said. It was planned after residents reported skin, neurological, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems after the leak. 

The heath issues are believed to have stemmed from the fuel spills in May and November 2021 at Red Hill that released some 20,000 gallons of fuel, contaminating a nearby well used by 93,000 people, including Hawaii military families, and sickening nearly 6,000.   

Earlier: The leak prompted the Pentagon to order the facility’s closure in March with the goal of fully defueling and shuttering it by June 2024. 

Since then, more than 100 people affected by the water contamination have joined in a lawsuit against the Navy. In the lawsuit, originally filed in August with the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii, the plaintiffs claim they suffered physically, emotionally and financially due to the fuel leak. Those in the lawsuit believe there are long-term health effects from drinking the fuel-tainted water.   

Hesitancy: The U.S. military, however, has not confirmed a link between the fuel leak and any illnesses.   

“People are absolutely having health care problems, that I believe, and people deserve to be seen, that I believe with all my heart,” Espiritu said. “Whether the two are connected, I can’t — we can’t make that leap now. But what we want to happen is for people to come in so we can see them, find out what’s happening to them, and work them out thoroughly so if there is a connection, we can pursue it.”  

Read more here 

Taiwan firm halts business with Iran amid US scrutiny

A Taiwanese technology company has halted its business in Iran while it investigates whether it violated international sanctions, as the US ramps up scrutiny of Iran’s military and weapons production amid the Russia-Ukraine war.  

The Hill has learned that ATEN International has immediately stopped accepting orders from Iran and exporting their products to the country following concerns raised by the nonprofit group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). 

A larger problem: UANI’s concerns, and ATEN’s response, points to a larger problem that Iran appears to be sourcing the materials for its drone program despite efforts by the U.S., Europe and other allies to isolate the regime with sanctions. 

The U.S. has put numerous sanctions in place to try to target entities and individuals related to Iran’s drone program, in particular as Iran is supplying Russia with drones to use in its war against Ukraine.  

“We have seen Iran directly support Russia’s efforts to kill Ukrainians,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.  

More on UANI: UANI is a nonprofit and nonpartisan policy organization that, as part of its activities, counsels and cautions international businesses about the legal, financial and reputational risks of engaging in business with Iran, according to a company spokesperson. 

The group earlier wrote to ATEN over concerns that its business with the Tehran-based Raymond Computers was opening it up to possible sanctions violations, citing Hebrew-media reports that showed what appears to be the ATEN logo displayed in a YouTube video promoting an Iranian military test of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, according to communication obtained by The Hill. 

Read that story here 


The Hudson Institute will hold a discussion on “Countering Russian Influence in Georgia,” at 10 a.m. 


That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow