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Pentagon makes China its top policy priority with several new classified programs

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin participates in a news briefing at the Pentagon May 6, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

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WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday directed the Pentagon to place China and its military buildup at the center of American defense policy.

The classified Pentagon-wide directive comes on the heels of recommendations from a 23-member task force aimed at assessing the U.S. military’s China strategy.

The task force, unveiled by President Joe Biden during his first visit as commander in chief to the Pentagon, includes representatives from the sister services, several combatant commands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the intelligence community.

“This directive from the Secretary is ultimately about getting the Department’s house in order and ensuring that the department lives up to the stated prioritization of China as the No. 1 pacing challenge,” explained a senior Defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

Austin’s directive comes as the administration and lawmakers in both parties ramp up initiatives to counter China’s international ambitions, from economic and trade policy to security concerns. The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping tech and manufacturing bill aimed at curtailing China’s increasing technological influence.

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Through the directive unveiled Wednesday, the Pentagon will assess U.S. alliances and partnerships, deterrence, operational concepts, emerging capabilities, future force posture, technology, and civilian and military workforce.

“Certainly China’s influence and its global capabilities are important with regard to its military modernization and some of its relationships around the world and we, of course, took those into account but we were not assessing financial or economic policies,” the official said.

When pressed for more details, the official added that the initiatives created by the directive will largely remain classified.

The tension between Beijing and Washington, the world’s two largest economies, soared under the Trump administration. Over the past four years, former President Donald Trump placed blame squarely on China for a wide range of grievances, including intellectual property theft, unfair trade practices and the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden has previously said that his administration was ready for “extreme competition” with China but that his approach would be different than his predecessor. He has also placed greater emphasis on working more closely with allies in order to push back against China.

“We will confront China’s economic abuses,” Biden said during his first visit to the State Department in February. “But we’re also ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so. We’ll compete from a position of strength by building back better at home and working with our allies and partners,” he added.

The president has also said that during his political career he has spent more time with China’s Xi Jinping than any other world leader.

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