US Defence Department winds up China task force, keeping recommendations classified

·3-min read

An advisory body to the US Department of Defence established to make recommendations for ways to improve how the department carries out its China-related military strategy has wound up its business, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

Many of the task force’s recommendations, which were classified and thus not outlined, “are intended to streamline and strengthen cooperation with US allies and partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific”, the department announced.

Led by Ely Ratner, a special assistant to Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, the ad hoc body, which was set up by the Biden administration as one of its first actions, assembled officials from each armed service division and the US intelligence community.

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Its mission was “to conduct a baseline assessment of [the Pentagon’s] China-related programmes, policies, and processes” and to deliver “a set of top priorities and recommended courses of action” to Austin.

US President Joe Biden announced the formation of the task force in February, during his first defence-focused address. In that speech to Pentagon staff, he characterised the rivalry between the US and China as “the competition of the future”, and warned about the “growing challenges” posed by Beijing.

Biden followed up several weeks later, in his first news conference as president, with a pledge to prevent China from becoming the world’s “leading” and “wealthiest” country by continuing to close ranks with allies and boosting America’s investment in technology.

Pressed for details at a briefing on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said only that the recommendations did not amount to a military strategy.

China and Indo-Pacific in US military sights as Pentagon takes fresh look at forces

Rather, he said, they were more “an assessment of how the department’s doing with respect to truly treating China as the No 1 pacing challenge, and the task force found some gaps and seams, some things that we could be doing better”.

He added that the task force had not endorsed a budget or any particular weapons programme.

The recommendations, which Kirby said had been endorsed by Austin, include “plans to better include China as a focus area inside the workforce, and particularly in the world of training and education, and how much are we really looking at making sure we have a workforce, or a part of the workforce, that can help us better focus on China.

“It gets to the training and education and proficiency … in understanding that nation in that part of the world,” he said.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has endorsed the recommendations an advisory panel has made concerning US military policy towards China. Photo: AFP
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has endorsed the recommendations an advisory panel has made concerning US military policy towards China. Photo: AFP

The recommendations “will help inform both the global posture review, which is ongoing, and will be completed later this summer, as well as the initial work we‘re doing to start to build out a new national defence strategy”.

Kirby denied that the task force was convened to undo practices initiated by previous administrations, and said that it endorsed some moves made by the Trump and Obama administrations.

With respect to training and education, Austin’s predecessor Mark Esper, a defence secretary under then-president Donald Trump, directed US military academics to devote half their coursework to understanding China, the better to more effectively counter Beijing’s “aggression”.

“As part of our top-10 goal to focus the department on China, I directed the National Defence University to refocus its curriculum by dedicating 50 per cent of the coursework to China by academic year 2021,” Esper said in a speech in October at the Washington think tank Heritage Foundation.

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