Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 10 February 2021


Joe Biden creates Pentagon task force on China

President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris greet Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, left, and Lloyd Austin, secretary of defence, right, while arriving at the Pentagon on Wednesday © Bloomberg

Joe Biden has created a Pentagon task force to help craft a comprehensive China policy that will examine everything from the deployment of US forces around the world to relations with the Chinese military.

The US president announced the formation of the working group during a visit to the Pentagon on Wednesday. The task force, which will include uniformed officers and civilians, will produce recommendations within four months. It will be led by Ely Ratner, a China expert and Pentagon official.

Biden said the task force would “work quickly . . . so that we can chart a strong path forward on China”.

“It will require a whole-of-government effort, bipartisan co-operation with Congress and strong alliances and partnerships,” Biden added. “That’s how we’ll meet the China challenge and ensure the American people win the competition in the future.”

The Pentagon said the task force would be a “sprint effort” that would examine issues including technology, intelligence and US relations with allies.

I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We’re going to focus on international rules of the road

Joe Biden, US president

The move comes as the new administration formulates its policy after a turbulent period under former president Donald Trump when US-China relations declined to their lowest point since diplomatic ties were established four decades ago.

Trump took an aggressive stance towards China over issues ranging from its trade practices to concerns about cyber espionage and its activity in the South China Sea.

The Biden team has displayed signs it will maintain a tough posture towards Beijing. The state department recently warned China to stop trying to intimidate Taiwan after Chinese warplanes entered the country’s air defence zone and simulated an attack on a nearby US aircraft carrier strike group.

The USS Nimitz and USS Theodore Roosevelt conducted rare dual aircraft carrier training exercises in the South China Sea, only the second time that the US navy has carried out such training in the area since 2012.

Biden on Sunday said China would face “extreme competition” from the US. While he praised Xi Jinping as “very bright”, the US president said his Chinese counterpart “doesn’t have a democratic . . . bone in his body”.

“I’ve said to him all along that we need not have a conflict,” Biden told CBS television. “But there’s going to be extreme competition . . . I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We’re going to focus on international rules of the road.”

Elbridge Colby, a former senior Trump official who helped to craft the Pentagon’s more hawkish stance on China, said the Pentagon review would be “critical” in determining whether the Biden administration would grapple with what he said was the scale of the China challenge in the military sphere.

“The Biden administration has sent largely strong signals on China thus far, but has tended to soft pedal or even downplay the importance of hard power, especially military power, in the competition with China,” he said, arguing the military danger from Beijing was nevertheless increasing and would need to be prioritised over other issues.

Top Biden administration officials have criticised China over its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and the detention of an estimated 1m Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern Xinjiang region. Blinken said he agreed with the Trump administration that the repression of the Uighurs was “genocide”.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, last week told Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, that the US would stand up for democracy and human rights, and hold China to account for its “abuses” of the international system, but Biden officials also want to work with Beijing on climate change.

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