Pentagon Completes China Policy Review

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Pentagon Completes China Policy Review

The internal assessment will inform ongoing strategy development.

Pentagon Completes China Policy Review
Credit: DoD Photo by Chad J. McNeeley

The Pentagon has completed a four-month internal review of its China policies and strategies, and Secretary of Defense  Lloyd Austin issued a new directive outlining a number of efforts to support its China strategy.

“The initiatives I am putting forward today are nested inside the larger U.S. government approach to China and will help inform the development of the National Defense Strategy we are working on,” Austin said in a statement.

Austin intends to oversee the Pentagon’s China policies and operations directly, commensurate with U.S President Joe Biden’s view that China represents the United States’ greatest geopolitical challenge. Biden has characterized his policy towards China as one of “extreme competition.”

The review began just weeks after Biden’s inauguration under the direction of Ely Ratner, who was a national security advisor to Biden when he was vice president and came to the Pentagon as a special assistant to Austin for China affairs. He is now the administration’s nominee to be the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

The directive itself is classified, along with many of the initiatives and programs reviewed. The Pentagon’s announcement contained few additional details. 

A senior defense official told reporters that “We decided early on that we didn’t want to produce a set of aspirational recommendations that would just sit on a shelf, so our team sought to understand the critical debates inside the department and what would be required to bring greater focus, unity of effort and coordination on the China challenge.”

They went on to highlight that while the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identified the strategic challenge posed by China and trumpeted new aggressive approaches, those means of competing were largely under-resourced, something the official described as a “say-do gap.”

The Pentagon’s press secretary described the review as a “look at the way the department is organized, the way it’s structured and the way we think about the broader issues of China from a security perspective.” The effort should be considered more as an assessment than a new strategy, he explained.

One area he did provide some detail on is an initiative to ensure that training and education of department personnel focuses more specifically on China, something that has been reported separately. This is a somewhat controversial move, since an effort to produce a universal literacy on China could dilute other important educational priorities without being in-depth enough to produce genuine or useful expertise.

Despite the classified nature of many of the Pentagon’s China initiatives, hints about its approach to China are seen in the proposed 2022 budget released last week. The proposals for the navy were disappointing to advocates who believe a larger fleet is necessary to effectively counter China and its own expanding navy, calling for only eight new ships while retiring 15. But funding for long-range strike weapons across all the services, and with a special emphasis on speeding up the deployment of hypersonic weapons, suggests that instead of relying on traditional naval power to deter China, the Pentagon is focusing on particular “high-return” capabilities that reduce the risk to the platforms launching them, as well as the number of platforms needed to bring those capabilities to bear.