Trans-Pacific View | Security

US Defense Department to Create Big Picture China Task Force

The move comes amid a visible push by the Biden administration to meet the China challenge.

Abhijnan Rej
US Defense Department to Create Big Picture China Task Force
Credit: Flickr/gregwest98

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on February 10 provided details about a new China Task Force that would inform the Pentagon’s strategic approach towards that country. A DoD factsheet noted: “This initiative will provide a baseline assessment of DoD policies, programs, and processes on China-related matters and provide the Secretary of Defense recommendations on key priorities and decision points to meet the China challenge.”

Announcing that task force will comprise of up to 15 uniformed and civilian DoD employees and headed by Ely Ratner, advisor to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the fact sheet also noted that the task force will “align its recommendations with interagency partners to ensure DoD continues to support the whole-of-government approach toward China.” (Notably, the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report publicly released by the Trump administration was also a DoD product, even though it too alluded to a whole-of-government approach to the region.) Among the areas of the task force’s focus are strategy, operations, and force structure, as well as intelligence, role of allies and partners, and U.S. defense relations with China, the fact sheet informed.

The task force, which will also involve the U.S. intelligence community, will submit its recommendations within four months after its formal creation. It will not be releasing a public report, and instead, will present its findings to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense, and discuss it with the Congress.

At a media briefing on February 11, Ratner – who had served under Biden in various capacities in the past – provided further details about the task force. Noting that Austin sees “China as the number-one pacing challenge for the United States,” he described the goals of the task force:

What we’re going to do here is try to identify the most important challenges and opportunities for the secretary, try to identify what should serve as his and his team’s top priorities on China, whether those be issues that need secretary-level decisions or guidance, issues that need greater prioritization, attention, and resources, or issues that need either strength and/or new processes to move them forward to address them.

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Austin on February 4 had announced a global force posture review “of U.S. military footprint, resources, strategy and missions.” The review comes at a time when the Biden administration formulates a plan to simultaneously manage a draw-down from legacy conflicts as well as reprogram its military resources towards China and the Indo-Pacific. Making the announcement, Austin emphasized the crucial role U.S. allies and partners as well as well as diplomacy would play in the Biden administration’s defense policy.

When asked how he saw the task force’s work as the Pentagon pushed ahead with the review, Ratner answered that he saw the work of the task force as extending beyond the issues that are to be addressed in it. However, he noted that the review and the task force’s work will have a bidirectional relationship, and that it will also inform the administration’s National Defense Strategy (expected next year).

Interestingly, Ratner noted that the task force’s work will not include recommendations for bureaucratic reorganization inside the Pentagon. He also — when asked whether the United States was looking to deploy land-based intermediate range missiles in Asia – noted that the task force will not focus on specify policy questions. Instead, Ratner emphasized its essentially broad-brush approach, stating that the task force’s goals would be to “surface key challenges, raise big questions, and then identify processes and who in the department are the appropriate folks to get after them.”

On February 10, Austin had briefed Biden about the task force during the president’s visit to the Pentagon for the first time since assuming office. Announcing the task force following the briefing, Biden noted that United States’ approach towards China “will require a whole of government efforts, bipartisan cooperation in Congress and strong alliances and partners.” In a February 7 interview with CBS, Biden described the China-U.S. relationship as one of “extreme competition,” albeit one where conflict need not be inevitable.