Brinksmanship in the South China Sea; Obama pushes back on no boots pledge in Syria; Did ISIS down the Russian airliner or not?; ‘Advisory drones’ in Syria; And a bit more...

U.S. to China: No harm, no foul in the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy wasn’t trying to threaten China militarily with last week’s freedom of navigation patrol through the South China Sea, U.S. Navy Adm. Harry Harris said in his first visit to China as Pacific Command chief.

“These operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” Harris said in Beijing this morning of the decision to send the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit claimed by China. “In my opinion, this is when military-to-military dialogue is needed most. Sustained people-to-people contact is one of the best ways we can avoid misunderstanding and military miscalculation.”

Those soft words are a sharp change in tone from July, when Harris called out China’s “aggressive coercive island building” as “clearly military.”

The Chinese reax: The U.S. is guilty of “hypocrisy and hegemonism” with its rhetoric and actions in the South China Sea, Beijing’s foreign ministry said this morning, the Wall Street Journal reports. However, they note “Beijing has been unusually restrained in that it hasn’t suspended military exchanges with the U.S., as it did frequently during previous periods of tension.”

Beijing can expect at least two or more patrols in South China Sea per quarter, but maybe “a little more than that,” a U.S. defense official told Reuters Monday.

At Monday’s Defense One Summit, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told CNN’s Jim Sciutto, “That's our interest there ... to demonstrate that we will uphold the principle of freedom of navigation.”

“We do operations like that all the time around the world. That will continue for us. We'll just keep going,” added Vice Admiral John Aquilino, deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategies, at Monday’s summit. Video from all the Summit sessions will be posted on Defense One, soon.

Malaysia’s defense chief is on board with the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation treks, following “similar expressions of support for Washington’s approach in the Asia-Pacific region—by Australia, the Philippines and South Korea,” the WSJ adds from Kuala Lumpur, where Defense Secretary Ash Carter is meeting with his regional counterparts at the biennial gathering of 18 Asia-Pacific defense chiefs—called the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, or ADMM+. Tensions in the SCS are expected to dominate Wednesday’s ASEAN agenda—despite predictable protests from Beijing to avoid the issue against the rising concerns of Washington and Tokyo. That bit, here.

Beijing’s “little blue men.” During the passage of the USS Lassen through the South China Sea, Chinese merchant and fishing vessels behaved in sharp contrast to China’s navy ships, “crossing the Lassen’s bow and maneuvering around the destroyer even as they kept their distance,” Defense News reported. “While Russia’s little green men in Crimea are widely known, insufficient attention has been paid to China’s little blue men in the South China Sea,” said Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the US Naval War College. “It’s so different from what the US does. People aren’t familiar with it, it’s hard to wrap their heads around it.” That, here.

Florida’s playing a part in the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship, as three Chinese navy ships are visiting Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville today ahead of a U.S. Navy ship drop-in at Shanghai later this month with U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift, CNN and WSJ note.

Obama pushes back on claims his “no boots on the ground” pledge in Syria is out the window with those 50 special operators called up for training moderates in the north. “We are not putting U.S. troops on the front lines fighting firefights with ISIL,” he told NBC Nightly News. “Keep in mind that we have run special ops already and really this is just an extension of what we are continuing to do… I have been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations. That doesn't solve the problem.”

About that U.S.-backed Syrian opposition—does it even exist? New York Times says no. Or at least that “it exists in name only, and that the political and logistical challenges it faces are daunting.”

“A newly appointed spokesman for the alliance briefed reporters in Syria beneath a yellow banner bearing its name in Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian. But the meeting took place inside a Kurdish militia facility because the alliance does not have its own bases yet, nor flags to put on its cars or a defined command structure, said the spokesman, Talal Sillu. The combined force is to be commanded by a six-person military council, Mr. Sillu said. But he acknowledged that only one member had been selected so far — Mr. Sillu himself.” That story, here.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps just lost another officer to fighting in Aleppo, adding to the seven reportedly killed from fighting in Syria during the month of October, AP reports. That news comes as Moscow is requesting peace talks between Syrian officials and the opposition next week. Just which parties of the opposition will be invited is yet to be determined. More here.

ICYMI: A disturbingly complicating factor is emerging on the Syrian battlefield—rebels are placing captured alleged former Syrian army officers in cages atop buildings to discourage airstrikes on their positions in Damascus, NYTs reported Sunday. “According to Baraa Abdulrahman, a media activist close to the Army of Islam, the dominant rebel group in the region, the prisoners were captured army officers from President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect and their families. The captives were being placed in dozens of cages on rooftops and in streets throughout the rebel-controlled territory ‘so they can taste our misery,’ Mr. Abdulrahman said in one of the video clips published online Sunday.” More here.

And divisive former Iraqi pol Ahmed Chalabi has died, reportedly of heart failure. Washington Post has an obit of the Iraqi exile “who helped spur the U.S. invasion” of Iraq in 2003 here.

From Defense One

From the Defense One Summit: The commander of U.S. special operators in Africa says African warlord Joseph Kony is on the run — but he needs more authority from Congress to broaden the U.S. military’s mission in Africa. USSOF have helped reduce the warlord’s militia from roughly 3,000 to less than 200, take several LRA commanders of the battlefield, and inspire another handful to give themselves up. More from the live interview with Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, here.

“The era of everything is the era of grand strategy,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said at the summit. Today, “almost all our combat power” is in the United States itself, and “we think about swinging forces quickly from theater to theater.” This means that “if an adversary wants to attack, they will be able to pick the time and place, and have an initial advantage in forces.” Moreover, their technology has caught up with the U.S. in important areas; for example, they can throw guided munitions as far and in as many numbers as the U.S. military can. More, here.

It isn’t uncommon for U.S. intelligence analysts to ping several hundred or more databases separately to collect information. That may soon change, explained Cathy Johnston, director for the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise, or ICITE, and digital transformation at the Defense Intelligence Agency. NextGov’s Frank Konkel has the story.

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Kevin Baron. Tell your friends to subscribe here: Want to see something different? Got news? Let us know:

Can ISIS shoot down an airliner? Did they? U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper doesn’t rule out that ISIS may have taken down the Russian airliner that crashed in the Sinai on Saturday, he told the summit Monday morning. “We don’t have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement—yet,” he said, noting ISIS’s claim they did it. The bigger question--and longtime fear--remains: Does ISIS have the ability to shoot down a passenger jet? “It’s unlikely but I wouldn’t rule it out.” Clapper said.

More, here. Video of Clapper’s entire interview, here.

An American infrared satellite “detected a heat flash at the same time and in the same vicinity over the Sinai where the Russian passenger plane crashed,” NBC reported later Monday. “According to the official, U.S. intelligence analysts believe it could have been some kind of explosion on the aircraft itself, either a fuel tank or a bomb, but that there's no indication that a surface-to-air missile brought the plane down.” That over here.

A very grainy video posted to social media purports to show the downing of the airliner, but Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi says it’s just propaganda and nothing more, BBC reports.

And the airline, Metrojet, irked Russian authorities Monday with their claim that external factors were the cause of the plane’s disintegration rather than technical issues or pilot error, WaPo reports. “Russian government officials responded with a swift rebuke that it was both premature and without foundation to speculate on what caused the crash, wanting to contain speculation — and potential embarassment — over what led to the deadliest civil aviation disaster in Russia’s history.”

President Obama signed the budget deal on Monday, one day before the deadline for averting a default on U.S. debts, and relieving the military of its dreaded sequestration problems for a two-year span, AP reported.

What does the Pentagon gain? Check out Defense One’s take from Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber here, or CSIS’ Todd Harrison doing the math on it all right here.

And House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, “said he expects to finish cutting $5 billion from Congress' 2016 defense policy bill on Monday in order to match it with a budget agreement reached last week,” The Hill reported, also from the Defense One Summit. “In response to a question on whether they are looking at ‘big-ticket programs’ like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, he said, ‘We're looking at them all...and trying to do the least damage but...there's going to be pain.’” More here.

Is the Pentagon and Silicon Valley on a collision course in winning the hearts of venture capitalists? The Heritage Foundation’s Justin Johnson hosts a discussion on the matter today at 2 p.m. Details here.

Lastly today—fake news alert—U.S. drones in Syria are “serving strictly in an advisory role,” the gents at the Duffle Blog write in the latest spin from the White House’s combat-noncombat distinction playing out in the Syrian battlespace. For a bit more clear-eyed take, check out Defense One’s Gayle Lemmon on why the question matters very much for U.S. citizens and members of the military alike.