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U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cameron Stoner
The United States needs its NATO allies to invest more in their military capabilities and help the Pentagon address the growing threat posed by China, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III said Feb. 19.
Austin attended a virtual NATO ministerial meeting with his alliance counterparts earlier this week. Discussion topics included a resurgent Russia, disruptive technologies, climate change, the war in Afghanistan, terrorism and “an increasingly aggressive China,” he told reporters during his first Pentagon press briefing since taking office.
“I made it clear that the United States is committed to defending the international rules-based order, which China has consistently undermined for its own interests,” he said, describing the rival nation as the Defense Department’s “primary pacing challenge.”
“We believe NATO can help us better think through our operating concepts and investment strategies when it comes to meeting that challenge,” he added.
NATO was formed in the early years of the Cold War to help defend Western Europe and North America against the Soviet Union. However, since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has pivoted to combating other threats such as international terrorism. NATO is expected to produce a new “Strategic Concept” as part of a series of reform efforts, which may include a greater focus on addressing China’s growing military capabilities.
Austin noted that more and more NATO allies are now meeting their commitments to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, including 20 percent of that amount on modernization. But, like many previous U.S. defense leaders, he pressed for other NATO countries to do more burden sharing.
“We must each of us do our part to procure, prepare and provide ready forces and capabilities,” he said. “Now we’re into our seventh year of steady defense spending increases, and naturally we want this trend to continue and we want to see every member of the alliance contribute their fair share.”
The Biden administration has identified strengthening alliances and partnerships as a key pillar of its foreign policy.
Non-NATO partners including Finland, Sweden and the European Union also participated in the ministerial, and offered their perspectives about China, Austin noted.
The Biden administration recently began its own deep dive on these issues. On Feb. 10, just three weeks after President Joe Biden was sworn in, it set up a new China Task Force led by Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner. It includes representatives from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the military services, combatant commands and the intelligence community.
“This initiative will provide a baseline assessment of DoD policies, programs and processes on China-related matters and provide the Secretary of Defense recommendations on key priorities and decision points to meet the China challenge,” according to a Pentagon fact sheet.
The task force is expected to address: strategy; operational concepts; technology and force structure; force posture and force management; intelligence; U.S. alliances and partnerships; and defense relations with China.
Its findings and recommendations are due by mid-June.
During the press briefing, Austin was asked if he sees any areas where the United States and China could potentially cooperate or collaborate on international security issues.
“There no doubt are some areas where we will see common interests and there may be an opportunity to engage,” Austin said.
“Now having said that, from a Department of Defense standpoint … my No. 1 concern and my No. 1 job is to defend this country and protect our interests,” he added. “And so we in this department are going to do everything possible to ensure that we have the right operational concepts, the right plans in place, and that we have resourced those plans with the right capabilities to present a credible deterrent, not only to China [but] any other adversary who would want to take us on.”
Topics: DOD Leadership, Internation Cooperation