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Overnight Defense: Biden casts doubt on Afghanistan withdrawal by May | US-China tensions high ahead of first meeting of Biden administration | Minorities underrepresented in military academy nominations

Overnight Defense: Biden casts doubt on Afghanistan withdrawal by May | US-China tensions high ahead of first meeting of Biden administration | Minorities underrepresented in military academy nominations
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Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: More signals are coming in that the U.S. military might be in Afghanistan past May 1, this time from the commander-in-chief himself.

In an interview that aired Wednesday, President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' Conservative group sues over prioritization of women, minorities for restaurant aid MORE did not rule out withdrawing by May 1, but he did say doing so would be “tough.”

“It could happen, but it is tough,” Biden told ABC News’s George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosFauci: 'Other countries need to chip in' to help India Harris: I don't think America is a racist country, but we need to speak truth about history Biden meets with TV anchors ahead of joint address MORE about withdrawing by May 1.

Biden added that his administration’s review on the issue is still ongoing.

Why May 1?: That’s the day all U.S. troops are supposed to be out of Afghanistan under the deal negotiated with the insurgents by the Trump administration.

But U.S. officials have repeatedly said the Taliban has yet to uphold its end of the deal, namely breaking with al Qaeda.

U.S. officials also say they expect the Taliban to reduce violence against Afghan forces, though that is not something they agreed to in the public portion of the deal.

“The fact is that that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president worked out,” Biden said in the interview. “And so we’re in consultation with our allies, as well as the government.”

Why would it be tough?: Experts have warned that a full U.S. withdrawal without a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government could lead to a torrent of violence in Afghanistan, including the potential collapse of the government.

At this point, with less than 50 days to go before the deadline, it would also be a logistical challenge to pull 2,500 or so troops, plus equipment, out in a safe way.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan: As this debate plays out in Washington, the U.S. military launched strikes against the Taliban this week.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesperson Col. Sonny Leggett said the military had launched an unspecified number of strikes in the last 48 hours against Taliban fighters who were “actively attacking & maneuvering” against Afghan forces in the three districts in Kandahar province.

The U.S. military stopped publicly releasing data on the number of airstrikes it conducts in Afghanistan after the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed, but has occasionally publicized some strikes on social media.

US-CHINA TENSIONS HIGH AHEAD OF KEY MEETING

The Biden administration is having its first high-level meeting with Beijing on Thursday, and tensions are heating up.

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense: Ex-Pentagon chief defends Capitol attack response as GOP downplays violence | Austin, Biden confer with Israeli counterparts amid conflict with Hamas | Lawmakers press Pentagon officials on visas for Afghan partners Biden speaks with Israel's Netanyahu amid spiraling conflict with Hamas Blinken talks with Netanyahu amid escalating violence MORE and national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanHouse lawmakers roll out bill to invest 0 million in state and local cybersecurity Blinken speaks with Israeli counterpart amid escalating conflict Biden sent letter to Palestinian president over 'current situations' MORE will huddle for the first time face-to-face with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Alaska in what Biden administration officials expect to be a “one-off” meeting. 

In a move that is likely to rattle the Chinese, Blinken announced late Tuesday that the U.S. is sanctioning 24 Chinese officials over an overhaul of election laws earlier this month, accusing Beijing of an effort to “unilaterally undermine Hong Kong’s electoral system.” 

The decision was a clear signal of the new administration’s plans to put pressure on China over actions it views as violations of international rules and norms, despite Beijing’s criticisms that Washington is interfering in its domestic affairs.

What’s on the agenda?: The administration has set low expectations for the meeting, saying it would not include a deliverable or a joint statement by both sides and that there aren’t expectations for follow-on meetings. 

“This is very much about sitting down, getting an understanding of each other, and then taking that back and taking stock,” the senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday evening.

Biden officials are expected to press China over human rights and economic issues as well as its aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific. They may also discuss issues of potential cooperation like climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. Notably, China is a party to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Biden is seeking to restore to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

United front: A senior administration official noted the importance of Blinken and Sullivan meeting together with the Chinese to demonstrate that the administration is “unified” when it comes to policy towards China, describing a track record by China of trying to “play favorites” and pit officials against one another.

About those sanctions: The new financial penalties announced overnight Tuesday related to Hong Kong and are likely to further put China on the defensive against the U.S.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian reacted to the sanctions as a “severe violation of international law and norms governing international relations, and grave interference in China's internal affairs.”

He further laid out Beijing’s stance ahead of the Alaska meeting, saying, “We believe that China's determination to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests is crystal clear to the U.S. side.”

The Biden administration says its actions are about safeguarding “international rules, norms, and universal values.”

ANALYSIS FINDS MINORITIES UNDERREPRESENTED IN MILITARY ACADEMY APPOINTMENTS

Minority students have been nominated to military service academies at disproportionately lower rates than their white counterparts for more than two decades, according to a study published Wednesday based on admissions data.

The report, published by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, found that over a period of nearly 25 years, members of Congress have awarded just 6 percent of their military academy nominations to Black students and 8 percent to Hispanic applicants. White students received 74 percent of all lawmaker nominations.

Why it matters: The report said that due to the underrepresentation among military academy nominations, minority students “are denied the lifelong opportunities that an appointment can provide,” and that the minority students who do secure a nomination “often face discriminatory treatment during their service.”

“The lack of diversity in nominations deprives the military service academies of a diverse pool of qualified candidates — and divests our military of a diverse cohort of future leaders,” the report said. “Congress and the Department of Defense must implement broad and comprehensive policies to address the structural shortcomings of the current nominations system.”

Recommendations: The report’s recommendations for the Pentagon include publishing annual data on congressional nominations that include information such as race, ethnicity and gender, as well as an investigation on how the distribution of nominations impacts military academies’ diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The report's authors also urged for passage of the Panorama Act, which would create a central nominations portal to collect demographic information on nominees, and establish a grant program within the Defense Department to increase congressional outreach to underrepresented applicants.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Armed Services Committee will have a closed-door briefing with officials from the Congressional Research Services on the Defense Department budgeting process at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3lsdnsb

A House Foreign Affairs Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on human rights in Saudi Arabia with testimony from outside experts at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3ePAQSN

A House Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on the Department of the Navy’s unmanned systems with testimony from Navy and Marines officials at 11 a.m. https://bit.ly/3sammAZ

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger will speak at The Hill Virtually Live event The Future of Modern Expeditionary Warfare, discussing how the Navy and Marine Corps can maintain military readiness domestically and abroad, at 1:30 p.m. https://expeditionarywarfare.splashthat.com/

ICYMI

-- The Hill: General says North Korea could test new intercontinental missile 'in the near future'

-- The Hill: Report finds growing white nationalist threat

-- The Hill: Biden sends nominations to Senate for key State posts

-- The Hill: Iran blames air defense operator's error for downing of Ukraine jet in final report

-- The Hill: Biden imposes more sanctions on Russia over Navalny poisoning

-- The Hill: Biden says Putin will 'pay a price' for 2020 election meddling

-- Stars and Stripes: $8.5 billion annual cost to keep US troops in Japan, South Korea ensures regional stability, American security, GAO says

-- USA Today: Army denies medals, Special Forces insignia to soldier Trump pardoned for alleged murder

-- Washington Post: To counter China, U.S. pitches South Korea a sensitive effort involving Japan