The D Brief: SecDef meets Chinese counterpart; Ukraine’s new offensive; Marathon tanker flight; Next IO strategy; and more...

Easing tensions? U.S., Chinese military chiefs chat at length in Cambodia. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Tuesday. It’s the third time the men have spoken in their current roles, and just the second time they’ve spoken in person; the last time was in June, which was about three months into Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

Big-picture themes of the meeting: “responsibly manag[ing] competition and maintain[ing] open lines of communication,” the Pentagon said in a readout

A note on “managing competition” between the world’s two most powerful economies, as opposed to Washington projecting a “great power competition” approach (emphasis added): America needs “a strategy to coexist [and] on some issues work with China,” on the one hand, while also “stand[ing] up to bad behavior” from Beijing’s Communist Party leaders, Mike Mazarr of RAND Corporation writes. Such a dual-use strategy is required, he argues, because, “We’re sliding toward Cold War conceptions of a country that is nothing like the USSR in its economic gravitational pull [and] global influence. And we're increasingly assuming that our job with friends [and] allies who see it differently is to persuade or force them to see it our way.” But there was much more to Austin and Wei’s meeting Tuesday than just cordial strategizing. 

The two also spoke about “the increasingly dangerous behavior demonstrated by [Chinese military] aircraft in the Indo-Pacific region,” and how that behavior “increases the risk of an accident,” according to the Pentagon. (Consider, e.g., the episode from late May when a Chinese jet performed a dangerous interception of an Australian surveillance plane, dropping “chaff” in its path.) On that note and related considerations in terms of freedom of navigation and the seas, Austin’s office also said the secretary “affirmed that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Austin and Wei spoke about the geopolitical elephant in the room, Russia’s Ukraine invasion, which gave the two defense chiefs a chance to declare that both nations “oppose the use of nuclear weapons or threats to use them.” And the rest of the Pentagon’s readout retains the department’s typical boiler plate language regarding North Korea (stressing U.N. Security Council resolutions, e.g.) and Taiwan (including Washington’s “longstanding one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances,” et cetera). Read more, here

From the Chinese perspective, “The responsibility for the current situation in China-US relations lies with the US, not with China,” according to the message Beijing says Wei conveyed to Austin Tuesday in Cambodia. “The U.S. must respect China's core interests,” and “adopt a rational and pragmatic China policy, so as to bring China-US relations back to the track of steady and sound development,” China’s military said in its readout

“The Taiwan question is at the very core of China's core interests and is the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations,” Wei told Austin. “Taiwan is China's Taiwan,” he said bluntly, and “The Chinese armed forces have the backbone, resolve, confidence, and capability to resolutely safeguard the national reunification,” said Beijing’s military chief. 

Otherwise, Wei was not terribly forthcoming, including on Russia’s Ukraine war, which China’s readout addressed only briefly when it noted in closing that Austin and Wei “also exchanged views on international and regional situations, the Ukraine crisis, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula issues.”

Additional reading: 

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Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1988, the U.S. Air Force publicly unveiled a prototype of its B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber for the first time at the service’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. Over the course of the aircraft’s development and lifespan, at least two different employees were caught trying to sell associated secrets to Russia (in the case of Thomas Cavanaugh) and to China (Noshir Gowadia). By the way, the Air Force is set to unveil its latest secretive addition, the B-21 “Raider,” in about 10 days, on Dec. 2, at those same Palmdale facilities. 

Ukrainian forces have launched a new offensive to retake occupied territory along what’s known as the Kinburn Peninsula, which is “a key maritime choke point at the mouth of two main rivers, the Southern Buh and the Dnipro,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. However, we may not hear much about this in the short term because, “For now, this military operation is in silent mode,” a military spokesman told the Journal’s Jared Malsin. 

Notes from an insurgency. Gain a genuine behind-the-scenes look at Russia’s Ukraine occupation via the personal story of Viktoria Andrusha, an extraordinary civilian who was taken prisoner and kept in a basement along with other Ukrainians during the shoddy early weeks of Russia’s invasion. She told her story to the BBC for their Monday “Ukrainecast” (podcast) episode. The occupiers moved Viktoria from outside Kyiv to Kursk, in mainland Russia—a common location, as the New Yorker reported in this piece from late October—and made the prisoners sing the Russian anthem at six o’clock every morning. All the while, Viktoria wrote and maintained secretive notes about the Russians, even as they moved her to a women’s jail near the border with Belarus before being handed back to her country as part of a prisoner exchange. 

“Unfortunately, my experience is by no means unique; this is what many Ukrainians have been through,” Andrusha told the BBC. “Of course, there are things in my head now that won’t go anywhere; but it’s not the end of the world. It had to happen. Would I go through it again? Yes, I certainly would,” she said. Catch the rest of her story amid a wider retelling of the importance and impact of Ukraine’s protests against corruption that began exactly nine years ago yesterday, here.

Related reading:

Update: The U.S. Navy says it can confirm Iran is responsible for a recent attack on an oil tanker in the Middle East, the M/T Pacific Zircon, which was struck last Tuesday in an apparent “kamikaze” drone attack in the northern Arabian Sea. After surveying the vessel the following day, U.S. Navy explosive ordnance technicians determined that an “explosive-laden” Shahed-136 aerial drone delivered the payload that ripped a “30-inch-wide hole into the back of the ship while subsequently penetrating and damaging internal compartments,” according to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which shared its findings in a statement with supporting imagery on Tuesday. Read more, here

And lastly today: A U.S. Army veteran helped stop a mass shooter from killing more people after the gunman opened fire Sunday evening at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. The veteran’s name is Richard M. Fierro, and he’s a former Army major who left the service in 2013 after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

He was at the club watching a drag show with his family when the shooter entered and opened fire; once he perceived an opening, he raced toward the shooter, whose back was to Fierro, and pulled him to the ground, causing the gunman to lose one of his firearms; when he tried to pull a pistol on Fierro, the veteran snatched the gun and began beating the shooter with it in the head. That, anyway, is what he told the New York Times after police and investigators released him from custody on Monday. One of the five killed in the shooting was the boyfriend of Fierro’s daughter; his name was Raymond Green Vance, Reuters reports. 

“I just went into combat mode,” Fierro said. “I just know I have to kill this guy before he kills us.” Read more at the Times, here. Or via AP, here

Related reading: Suspect had firearms despite violent threats,” the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.