The United States Senate on January 22 confirmed Lloyd Austin as the new secretary of defense. Austin, a former commander of the U.S. Central Command, becomes the first ever African American to hold that office. Austin’s Senate confirmation was near unanimous, with 93 votes in his favor versus two against. He was confirmed through the Senate floor vote after obtaining a waiver on January 21 from both houses of U.S. Congress, required by law for former military officers nominated to head the Pentagon within seven years of their retirement from armed services.
Former President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, James Mattis, had to seek a similar waiver, after having served in the United States Marine Corps all through his career, and retiring, like Austin, as CENTCOM chief.
Then-President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Austin for the defense secretary’s position in December had come as a surprise to many watchers of U.S. defense policy. In the run-up and immediate aftermath of the November 3 presidential elections, analysts had believed Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, to be the top contender for the position.
In an opinion piece in The Atlantic on December 9, the day he nominated Austin for the job, Biden had explained his rationale behind the choice, noting Austin’s service and leadership in Iraq.
“…Austin’s many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face. He is the person we need in this moment,” Biden wrote, noting the crucial role his secretary of defense would play in managing the logistics of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
But Biden’s description of the national security challenges that the United States faces – “from pandemics to climate change, from nuclear proliferation to the refugee crisis” – coupled with Austin’s lack of familiarity with the Indo-Pacific theater (which, by definition, ends where CENTCOM’s area of responsibility begins) led to a fresh round of social and traditional media speculations about the direction of Biden’s China policy — and whether he’d tone down the great-power-competition posture that his predecessor, at least on paper, had so stridently promoted.
At least till we see concrete details of how Biden’s foreign policy shapes up over the course of next few months, for the time being it seems that Austin will broadly follow the template set by his predecessors, Mattis among others.
When asked about the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy during the course of nomination hearings at the Senate Armed Services Committee by chairman Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, Austin had said: “I think much of the document is absolutely on track for today’s challenges, Mr. Chairman. As is the case with all strategies — if confirmed — one of the things that I would look to do is to work to update the strategy and work within the confines of the guidance and the policy issued by the next administration.”
“We’ll have to have capabilities that allow us to hold – to present a credible threat, a credible deterrent, excuse me, to China in the future. We’ll have to make some strides in the use of quantum computing, the use of AI [artificial intelligence], the advent of connected battlefields, the space-based platforms. Those kinds of things I think can give us the types of capabilities that we’ll need to be able to hold large pieces of Chinese military inventory at risk,” Austin was also quoted by USNI News as saying.