The D Brief: US, Chinese defense leaders meet; Zelenskyy slaps Beijing; Retired Navy 4-star, arrested; Disinfo, powered by OpenAI; And a bit more.

SecDef Austin hits back at Shangri-La: After meeting in person for the first time in more than a year, the military chiefs of the U.S. and China spent the weekend conveying contrasting messages of ease and caution, respectively, on the public stages of this year’s Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore. 

The two leaders first met face-to-face on the sidelines of the summit Friday, almost exactly five months after China’s Defense Minister Adm. Dong Jun took the job in December (we discussed the initial messaging from both offices in Friday’s newsletter), and after nearly two years of severed military-to-military communications between the two nations following a visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August 2022. The presidents of U.S. and China agreed to resume those mil-to-mil talks after meeting November in California. 

“We had a frank discussion [on Friday], and that's important,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said early in his remarks on stage Saturday. “There is no substitute for direct military-to-military talks between senior leaders, and there's no substitute for open lines of communication to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculations,” he said. But the heart of his messaging in Singapore concerned Washington’s allies and partners in the region. 

“Today, we are witnessing a new convergence around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. “And this new convergence is producing a stronger, more resilient, and more capable network of partnerships, and that is defining a new era of security in the Indo-Pacific.”

Rewind: We unpacked some of that “convergence” in one of our recent Defense One Radio podcasts featuring Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Context: The U.S. conducts more than 40 joint exercises in the Pacific region every year. Those drills are part of what’s known as the U.S. military’s “Operation Pathways,” which is designed to shore up Washington’s relationship with partners and allies throughout the Indo-Pacific. The Defense Department also refers to it as “a key pillar of the United States' integrated deterrence strategy.” 

According to Austin, “Like-minded countries with similar values and a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific are working together to achieve that vision,” he said Saturday. “And we’ve strengthened relationships with our allies and partners, and we see other countries strengthening their relationship with each other in the region. This is goodness,” he said. “But it’s because they have a common vision and common values. And we will continue to do those kind of things going forward.”

Adm. Dong and his officers had a different opinion. “We will not allow anyone to bring geopolitical conflicts or any war, whether hot or cold, into our region,” Dong said in his remarks on stage Sunday, which seemed perhaps most controversially to refer to relations with Taiwan, whose citizens just elected a new president; Chinese Communist leaders in Beijing view him as a “separatist,” which Dong repeated Sunday. “Separatists recently made fanatical statements that show their betrayal of the Chinese nation and their ancestors,” he said, and warned, “They will be nailed to the pillar of shame in history.” 

America’s Indo-Pacific strategy is designed “to create division, provoke confrontation and undermine stability,” Chinese Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng told the audience at Shangri-La, according to Reuters. Another Chinese officer, Col. Cao Yanzhong, claimed “the eastward expansion of NATO has led to the Ukraine crisis,” and asked, “is the U.S. planning to build a NATO-like alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region?”

“I respectfully disagree with your point that the expansion of NATO caused the Ukraine crisis,” Austin replied, and was met with a round of applause from the audience. “The Ukraine crisis obviously was caused because Mr. Putin made a decision to unlawfully invade his neighbor, who had an inferior military at that point in time,” Austin said. “He assumed he could very quickly roll over his neighbor and annex the country. That was two-plus years ago. He has not achieved any of his strategic objectives to this point.” 

See more: INDO-PACOM chief Navy Adm. Samuel Paparo, had a similar exchange the day prior with former Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai. Watch that episode, via Taiwan-watcher Ian Ellis on social media, here

Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy also visited Shangri-La, and warned China against supporting Russia’s ongoing invasion. “With China’s support to Russia the war will last longer,” Zelenskyy said, and described that as “bad for the whole world, and the policy of China—who declares that it supports territorial integrity and sovereignty and declares it officially. For them it is not good,” he said. 

“Regrettably, it is unfortunate that such [a] big independent powerful country as China is an instrument in the hands of Putin,” Zelenskyy said. 

China’s reax: “We also attach great importance to our relations with Ukraine,” a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Monday in Beijing. “China and Ukraine have maintained communication and cooperation since the Ukrainian crisis escalated,” she added. Read more at CNN

How Russia-, China-linked actors use OpenAI for disinformation. A new report from the AI company details five disinformation operations over the last three months that used OpenAI-powered generative artificial intelligence tools for topics like Ukraine, Taiwan, Moldova, and the United States. “Together, they provide a window into how adversaries can use advanced AI tools to affect perceptions of geopolitical events,” D1’s Patrick Tucker writes.

Additional reading:

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1969, about 3:15 a.m., U.S. Navy destroyer Frank E. Evans turned into the path of Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne during joint exercises in the South China Sea. The collision cut the U.S. vessel in half, killing 74 of the destroyer’s 273 crew members.

Former vice chief of naval operations arrested on bribery charges. Robert Burke allegedly steered work to a defense contractor while he was commanding Naval Forces Europe-Africa in return for a $500,000-per-year job when he retired, according to a Justice Department indictment unsealed on Friday.

The announcement came the same day as a court appearance by Leonard Glenn Francis, who was convicted in 2015 of bribing multiple Navy officers to obtain lucrative contracts for servicing warships in foreign ports. 

“The idea that you'd have a four-star admiral charged with taking bribes is kind of mind-blowing,” said Craig Whitlock, author of Fat Leonard: How One Man Bribed, Bilked, and Seduced the U.S Navy. “But the fact that this has happened after the Fat Leonard investigation really makes you question if the senior leadership in the Navy took any lessons to heart from that scandal.” Read on, here.

Air Force unit resumes intel ops after Discord leak. The 102d Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Group’s work was suspended after Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira leaked secret documents, including assessments of the war in Ukraine, on the messaging platform last year. Now the group has been “reinstated” after it was recertified to handle classified material by Air Combat Command, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said in a statement. D1’s Audrey Decker has a bit more, here.

Marine Corps is looking to recruit a few good cyber and signals experts. Some 10 to 15 civilians can enlist at ranks up to gunnery sergeant under a new pilot program, according to guidance issued by the Corps on Friday.  “Civilians and former members of other services must go through Marine Corps basic training, but former Marine Corps service members will be able to skip this step. Depending on their credentials, applicants may also be able to skip qualification courses for their specialty,” writes D1’s Sam Skove, here.

In the runup to the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France:

  • US veterans get heroes' welcome in France ahead of D-Day anniversary—Reuters
  • Parachutists recreate D-Day jumps from planes used in WWII operation to mark 80th anniversary—AP

And lastly: This afternoon in Washington, Army Futures Command’s Gen. James Rainey is scheduled to speak about modernization and strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It’s the fourth iteration of CSIS’s Strategic Landpower Dialogue event series, and it’s slated to begin at 2 p.m. ET. Details and livestream, here.