The D Brief: McCarthy-Tsai meeting; Ukraine holding on in Bakhmut; Fincantieri Marine Group GM suspended; and more…

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen in California on Wednesday. Tsai warned that “democracy is under threat” during the meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. She is the first Taiwan president to meet with a House speaker in the United States, CNN reports. As you likely recall, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan in August 2022, angering Beijing.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, landed in Taiwan on Thursday. Upon returning to Taiwan, Tsai is scheduled to meet with McCaul’s delegation on Saturday, NBC News reports.

How has Beijing reacted? In response to Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it would take “resolute and forceful measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” ABC News reports

China had previously threatened retaliation of some kind if Tsai met with McCarthy, and in response to the meeting, it launched new military drills, the BBC reports, sending warships into the waters around Taiwan. China fired missiles into those same waters following Pelosi’s 2022 visit.

The Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong was about 200 nautical miles off Taiwan's east coast Wednesday, Taiwan Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told reporters, according to Reuters. Taiwanese warships were monitoring the carrier from about six miles away. “It is training, but the timing is quite sensitive, and what it is up to we are still studying,” Chiu said. No aircraft were seen taking off from Shandong’s deck, Chiu said. Still Taiwan “does not expect a large escalation in tensions,” Reuters writes.

FWIW: The U.S. Navy’s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is currently in the East China Sea, according to USNI News.

Xi Jinping is again calling for Russia-Ukraine peace talks, after French President Emmanuel Macron—during a visit to Beijing—asked the Chinese leader to “bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table,” the Associated Press reported

“Peace talks should resume as soon as possible,” Xi said. 

Macron is “convinced that China has a major role to play in building peace,” he said in a tweet Thursday. “This is what I have come to discuss, to move forward on.”

Developing: Xi also indicated in a meeting with European Union head Ursula von der Leyen that he is willing to speak to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when the “conditions and time are right,” Reuters reported. Zelenskyy has asked Xi to meet with him multiple times in the past. 

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Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Marcus Weisgerber and Jennifer Hlad. On this day in 1965, the U.S. launched a communications satellite dubbed “Early Bird.” It was the first communications satellite to be placed in geosynchronous orbit, and helped provide the first live TV coverage of a spacecraft splashdown, in December of the same year. 

Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to reopen embassies following talks brokered by China in Beijing. It was the highest-level meeting between Rihyad and Tehran in more than seven years, CNN reports.  

“The two sides—previously staunch adversaries who’d severed diplomatic relations in 2016—also agreed to examine ways to expand their cooperation, including the resumption of flights, mutual trips from official delegations and the private sector, and facilitating visas, according to their statement, released by Iran.”

The opening of embassies in Riyadh and Tehran, and consulates in Jeddah and Mashhad, was announced last month. It is being seen as a diplomatic victory for China in the Middle East, where the U.S. has long wielded influence.

In Ukraine, the 14-month-long battle for Bakhmut continues, and Ukrainian troops say they’re ready to start a counteroffensive once the weather improves, Reuters reported Thursday. 

“They are underway in the streets, enemy attempts to encircle the city are failing,” said Andriy Yermak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Our command fully control the situation with the defensive ‘fortress.’”

In the Ukrainian trenches, a unit commander told Reuters that mud has been “an obstacle,” but the troops “are ready” to launch a counteroffensive. “We have to do it, the sooner, the better. The enemy must be chased away,” he said. 

The timing of the counteroffensive is key, CNN points out. “The essential preconditions for a Ukrainian counteroffensive include the completion of training and integration of new units, degrading the Russian rear, a resilient logistics chain and real-time intelligence,” Tom Lister writes. 

A U.N. Security Council meeting Wednesday drew widespread condemnation, and was blocked by the United States and the United Kingdom, as U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the meeting was an excuse for Russian commissioner for children’s rights Maria Lvova-Belova to “have an international podium to spread disinformation and to try to defend her horrible actions that are taking place in Ukraine,” the Washington Post reported.

Thousands of Ukrainian children have been snatched from their families or from orphanages and taken to Russia; Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador estimates it’s more than 19,500 children in total. Russia, which said it took the children for their own good, now says it will return them to Ukraine. AP has more details, here

Back in the U.S., calls are mounting for Russia to release Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested last week and accused of spying. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he has “no doubt” that Gershkovich was wrongfully detained, AP reported, though the formal determination on that issue has not been made yet. 

“In Evan’s case, we are working through the determination on wrongful detention and there’s a process to do that, and it’s something that we’re working through very deliberately, but expeditiously as well,” Blinken said. 

Fincantieri Marine Group suspended Bay Shipbuilding’s general manager Craig Perciavalle on Wednesday following allegations of crimes during the time when he worked for Austal USA, the company announced. 

“A federal grand jury on Friday indicted former Austal USA executives on felony fraud charges, alleging that they intentionally manipulated costs and earnings reports and misled company investors and shareholders about the true costs of building Littoral Combat Ships for the U.S. Navy,” USNI News reports. The alleged crimes happened between 2013 and 2016, according to the Justice Department.

Fincantieri, where Perciavalle has worked since 2021, is not accused of any wrongdoing, according to Forbes. “We are aware of the criminal indictment and civil complaint filed against Craig [Perciavalle] related to his previous employment before coming to FBS,” Fincantieri Marine Group CEO Marco Galbiati said in a statement. “We have chosen to suspend him from his current duties until these matters are resolved.”

Fincantieri Marine Group’s Marinette Marine builds Navy Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships and the new Constellation-class frigate. The Bay Shipbuilding division led by Perciavalle “is a specialist in the construction, repair, and conversion of Coast Guard and commercial vessels.”

And lastly today: The Government Accountability Office is supposed to rule by Friday whether the Army properly awarded a contract to Bell for its V-280 tiltrotor aircraft over a helicopter jointly made by Sikorsky and Boeing. The contract for the aircraft, which will replace Black Hawk helicopters, could be worth $70 billion over decades. It’s part of a program called the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA.

The backstory: The Army chose the V-280 in December over the Defiant X. Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin, and Boeing challenged the decision in late December arguing the “proposals were not consistently evaluated to deliver the best value.” An industry source told Defense One in February that its helicopter would be cheaper to fly and maintain over the long term. 

The GAO is a big deal not only for the companies involved but also for the Army, which has been wanting to modernize its helicopter fleet with faster aircraft that would be more effective in future combat. FLRAA is one of two major Army contracts under protest right now. Ground vehicle manufacturer Oshkosh has contested the Army’s choice of AM General to build 20,000 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles.