Trump & China; NATO chief’s unprecedented address; Egypt, crushing dissent; And a bit more.

President Trump is scheduled to meet with China’s vice premier this afternoon in the Oval Office. The meeting — which will be the third such between the two men — follows four months and six rounds of U.S.-China trade talks amid a tit-for-tat tariff war that’s cooled somewhat over the last few weeks.

The man Trump meets today, Vice Premier Liu He, spent Wednesday “with Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, and Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, for a potentially climactic negotiation session that was expected to last for three days,” Financial Times reported.

What remains to be ironed out: “the fate of existing US levies on Chinese goods, which Beijing wants to see removed,” FT writes, “and the terms of an enforcement mechanism demanded by Washington to ensure that China abides by the deal.”

What China wants: For the U.S. “to remove tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods immediately on signing a deal,” The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday evening. “In exchange, Beijing is ready to eliminate retaliatory tariffs on $110 billion of U.S. goods.”

What the White House wants: To “preserve some of [those tariffs] in order to keep pressure on Beijing to comply with the deal,” FT writes. White House officials also want a summit between China’s Xi Jinping and Trump as soon as possible. And that could be announced as soon as today, Journal reports separately this morning.  

One quiet sticking point: U.S. cloud computing companies gaining permission to operate in China. “Chinese cloud-computing companies can operate in the U.S. without hindrance,” WSJ writes. By contrast, “U.S. cloud providers such as Microsoft Corp. and Inc. must form joint operations in China and license their technology to a local partner.”

One big concern from China: Being left high and dry by Trump, who could decide to walk out of a Trump-Xi summit as he did with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in February.

Meantime, the feds just opened an investigation into possible Chinese intel work at Mar-a-Lago, the Miami Herald reported Wednesday. If you’re just catching up to this story, “The federal counterintelligence probe was turbo-charged on Saturday when U.S. Secret Service agents arrested a Chinese woman, Yujing Zhang, after they said she tried to enter the club with a bevy of electronic devices, including a thumb drive infected with ‘malicious malware.’”

That follows word Wednesday that “top Democrats in Washington called on the FBI and Director of National Intelligence to assess the risks posed by Mar-a-Lago’s policy of admitting members of the public and foreign nationals while the president and his family are using the club.” (Find the PDF of that letter, here.)

Said Trump Wednesday to CNN of what happened Saturday at Mar-a-lago: “I think that was just a fluke situation.” Much more from the Miami Herald, here.

And before we leave China matters today, the Pentagon wants to expand its Pacific portfolio of bases in Micronesia, WSJ’s Ben Kesling reported Wednesday.

The quick read: “The U.S. military has held talks with the Federated States of Micronesia about opening new naval facilities and expanding an airport runway, according to Micronesian government officials and official minutes of a Dec 4, 2018, defense meeting between officials of both nations.” That could also include adding Micronesia to the roster of nations participating in the U.S. Army’s Pacific Pathways exercises in 2020.

Said a Pentagon spox to the Journal: “We are renewing our engagement in the Pacific islands to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific region, maintain access, and promote our status as a security partner of choice... We are looking at ways to step up involvement in the other subregions, where New Zealand and Australia have traditionally led and are playing a significant role."

Said a State Department official: “We are upping the game because there’s growing concern with Chinese debt diplomacy in many regions of the world.”

What lies ahead: A possible meeting between President Trump and the presidents of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, which would be “the first time the heads of those three nations will meet with a U.S. president,” Kesling writes. More behind the paywall, here.

From Defense One

Trump Learns to Live With NATO—And Vice Versa // Kathy Gilsinan and Peter Nicholas, The Atlantic: There are arguments over spending, and all manner of other issues. But the 70-year-old alliance has seen bad times before.

In Somalia, US Air Strikes Rise and Transparency Declines // Claire Felter, Council on Foreign Relations: The 2019 tally is on track to more than double last year’s total.

Egypt’s President Is Crushing Dissent — and Fueling ISIS // Brian Dooley: Even if the White House is in denial about al-Sisi’s harm to regional instability, Congress shouldn't be.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1949, NATO was established with reps from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal and the U.S.

NATO’s chief delivered an unprecedented address to Congress on Wednesday. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg "vaguely touched on President Donald Trump’s questioning of the value of NATO and admitted the strength of the alliance is in question, amid divisions over trade, energy, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal," Defense News wrote off the event, cribbing from AP's initial dispatch on location.
Said Stoltenberg of the alliance: "We have to be frank. Questions are being asked on both sides of the Atlantic about the strength of our partnership. And, yes, there are differences… Today there are disagreements on issues such as trade, energy, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. These are serious issues with serious disagreements.” But, he said, “Open discussions and different views is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. So we should not be surprised when we see differences between our countries.” More from AP, here.

Also on Wednesday: Turkey said its choice to buy Russia’s S-400 air defense system “is a done deal, and we will not step back from this,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Wednesday at this week’s forum in Washington to commemorate NATO’s 70th anniversary.
ICYMI: VP Pence dropped by the NATO event Wednesday to deliver some tough talk to Washington’s pals in Ankara. “Turkey must choose,” Pence said. “Does it want to remain a critical partner of the most successful military alliance in the history of the world, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making reckless decisions that undermine our alliance? … We will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries, weapons that threaten the very cohesion of this alliance.” More from the WSJ, here.

Libyan general Khalifa Haftar’s men just “took full control of Gharyan, a town about 100 km (60 miles) south of the capital Tripoli,” Reuters reports this morning in a scene that has UN officials deeply worried about an escalation of regional violence. “The taking of Gharyan after skirmishes on Wednesday with forces allied to Tripoli Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj culminated a rapid thrust westwards by Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) from his eastern stronghold of Benghazi.”
Background: "Gharyan, lying in the Western mountains about 100 km due south of the capital, had been allied to the Tripoli government," Reuters writes. "Libya has been divided between the internationally recognized government in Tripoli and a parallel administration allied to Haftar since Gaddafi’s downfall."
UN Chief Antonio Guterres travelled to Libya Wednesday. Today he tweeted, “I am deeply concerned by the military movement taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation. There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country.”

The Afghan National Army was outfitted in the “most expensive, ineffective camouflage uniforms” available to the Pentagon, Tom Vanden Brook wrote off a "new report, obtained by USA TODAY and submitted to Congress on Wednesday." Story here.
Also in Afghanistan: Nothing to see here but British “soldiers at a shooting range in Kabul firing at a target of [Opposition Leader] Jeremy Corbyn.” Now Britain’s Ministry of Defence is investigating the matter. More from The Guardian, here.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, “allowed internal memos to leak out of the Pentagon to bring attention to service families living among hurricane-ravaged military installations as the Trump administration tries to bankroll the southwest border with defense funds at the expense of combat readiness,” Newsweek’s Jim LaPorta reported Wednesday citing two sources inside the Pentagon.
The gist: "In Neller's letters, unexpected service spending bills, including for President Donald Trump's southwest border operations, left the Marine general no choice but to cancel or significantly drawback planned military training exercises."
The exercises included Northern Edge, as well as the Integrated Training Exercise at Twentynine Palms in California. More here.

ICYMI: The U.S. Navy’s new USS Zumwalt destroyer arrived in Pearl Harbor this week — the ship’s “farthest foray into the Pacific” ocean, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Tuesday.

And finally this morning: A #LongRead to kickstart your weekend early. It’s called “Planet Fox,” and it centers on how “Rupert Murdoch destabilized the most important democracy on earth,” according to The New York Times’ Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg.
Don’t have that much time? Check out the more compact “6 Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation Into Rupert Murdoch and His Family,” here.