ANALYSIS– After a flurry of, mostly domestic, Executive Orders and immediate guidance on Pentagon policies dealing with climate, sex, gender issues and a 60-day DoD-wide ‘stand down’ to focus on ‘extremism’ in the military, President Biden is taking a slow-go, ‘let’s review’ approach to facing China. Rather than quickly building on former President Trump’s clear successes and appropriately aggressive strategy toward China, Biden instead is apparently trying to figure out what to do next.
According to Defense News (DN), on Wednesday Biden announced a Pentagon review of the U.S. military posture toward China in the Pacific. Biden said at his first visit to the Pentagon as President that the review will help “chart a strong path forward on China-related matters.” While DoD referred to this review process as a “sprint,” it won’t deliver its findings to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for at least four months.
DN explained that the Pentagon task force created to conduct the review “will be made up of ‘up to’ 15 civilian and uniformed officials, and will be led by Ely Ratner, a former deputy national security adviser to Biden who joined the department as Austin’s special assistant on China.” Defense News added:
Per a department fact sheet, the authors will take a deep dive into the department’s strategy; operational concepts; technology and force structure; force posture and force management; intelligence; alliances and partnerships; and military relations with China.
Under Trump, DoD dramatically shifted its focus toward China, with major military and naval resources increasing in the Pacific. The Pentagon even created a new role of deputy assistant secretary of defense to solely focus on China. Trump also deepened defense ties with Taiwan, providing offensive missiles for the first time in four decades, as well as ramped up cooperation with the other members of the increasingly anti-China bloc – the QUAD (Australia, Japan, India and U.S.).
Based on his history and record, Biden is strongly inclined toward a much softer approach toward China than Trump followed in past years. This is highlighted most clearly in his continuing inability to call China an opponent, or adversary – relying on the bland and inoffensive term – ‘competitor.’ In stark contrast Biden has repeatedly called Russia an ‘opponent.’
As recently as 2019, noted the Washington Post, Biden said of China. “I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” This provoked a huge bi-partisan backlash. A lot has changed since Biden was cozying up with China’s ‘Leader for Life’ Xi Jing pin as Vice President prior to 2017.
Recent events, and new strategic realities may affect Biden’s long-time inclination toward friendly engagement with China rather than challenging it. Growing Chinese belligerence on the world stage, the takeover of Hong Kong, direct Chinese challenges to Biden within days of his entering office, a hardening domestic U.S. view on China, as well as bipartisan support in Congress for stronger China policies, may force Biden to toughen his approach.
On a more personal level, the recent negative focus on the President’s son, Hunter Biden’s questionable ties to China – which I’ve written about here and here – and fears he may be in some way ‘compromised’ by these dealings may also be a factor in President Biden’s four-month China ‘review.’ After the election it was announced that Hunter has been under federal investigation for his business dealings since at least 2018.
We can only hope that whatever the reasons, at the end of this lengthy review, Biden will see the value of Trump’s solid China approach and build on it. Biden may even end up calling the Chinese ‘adversaries,’ rather than ‘competitors.’