Chinese People's Liberation Army cadets drill at the Armoured Forces Engineering Academy Base in 2014.

Chinese People's Liberation Army cadets drill at the Armoured Forces Engineering Academy Base in 2014. AP / Andy Wong

China Is Our No. 1 Priority. Start Acting Like It, Austin Tells Pentagon

Task force says the military Biden inherited from Trump had a “say-do gap” in the resources directed at China.

Pentagon leaders talk about the China threat more than they work to counter it — and that’s got to stop, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his department in a Wednesday directive.

Austin’s classified directive is built on recommendations by the Pentagon’s China Task Force, which was stood up in February after President Joe Biden told the department to review its efforts to counter Beijing. 

“The task force did find what we described as a ‘say-do gap’ between the stated prioritization of China and what we saw in a number of areas related to attention and resources and processes,” a senior defense official told reporters on Wednesday. 

The official declined to share many details about what new initiatives will be launched.

The findings echo comments defense officials at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in Hawaii, made earlier this year that “there’s been less walk than talk” on the issue of countering China for several years. 

The Pentagon was seeking to better focus on China long before Biden took office. In his first memo to staff in 2019, then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stressed a focus on “China, China, China.” Other top Trump officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, and Attorney General William Barr, also repeatedly slammed China for its intellectual property theft and human rights abuses, urging allies and Americans to reconsider how they think about and do business with Chinese leaders, firms, and technologies. 

Trump’s warnings to voters that “Beijing Biden” would be “weak on China” was a central part of the Republican’s 2020 campaign rhetoric. GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called the Biden administration’s essentially flat defense budget proposal insufficient to the nation’s top threat. 

“China’s effort to gain strategic influence across the globe is well known...Despite all this President Biden’s [fiscal 2022] budget proposal severely underfunds the Department of Defense, potentially jeopardizing our efforts to counter Chinese aggression around the world,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday at a hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “What’s the message to the world if you’re cutting defense in the time of a challenge like this?” 

In his first five months in office, Biden has generally continued Donald Trump’s China policies. Officials have laid out plans to confront China when necessary, compete where possible, and cooperate when both nations have a common interest. In April, for example, Chinese President Xi Jinping participated in Biden’s climate summit.  

Trying to convince European allies to take a harsher stance on China, including some nations who are major trade partners with Beijing, is also a top priority on Biden’s first international trip as president this week, just as it was for Trump officials. 

Austin’s new directive comes shortly after the Biden administration issued other orders focused on China outside of the Defense Department. On Wednesday, the president signed an order revoking Trump’s ban on specific Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok, instead ordering the Commerce Department to more broadly investigate foreign-owned apps and the risks they could pose to Americans’ data. Last week, the president signed an order banning American investment in Chinese surveillance companies. 

In February, Biden directed the Pentagon to review its China mission and make recommendations about how to better compete with Beijing. The task force included nearly two dozen people from different parts of the department and the intelligence community, the official said. In his directive, Austin ordered the creation of professional education for troops and civilians to make sure everyone understands that China is the department’s top priority, the official said. Another change is that Austin will personally oversee the department’s China operations as recommendations are implemented.

The official declined to share other recommendations or findings, but said they broadly deal with strengthening alliances, improving deterrence, developing new operational concepts, and organizing the future force. Some may eventually become public, the official said.

The military is considering a new force posture in the Pacific to better deter China. In a conversation with Defense One in March, military officials described it as “fewer bases, more places,” meaning troops spread out across more host nations, possibly in temporary rotations , rather than heavily-concentrated in Japan, South Korea, or Guam. Special  Multi-Domain Task Force units equipped with long-range precision fires, advanced cyber effects, and other tools would also play a key role. 

The following month, INDOPACOM commander Adm. Philip Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China could attempt to absorb Taiwan within the next decade, possibly within the next six years.

Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.