‘Pacing challenge’: US defence strategy focuses on China

Washington, DC – In a periodic assessment of US defence needs and priorities, the Pentagon has declared China a “pacing challenge” and called for an urgent strengthening of deterrence against Beijing while also naming Russia, Iran and North Korea as threats.

The National Defense Strategy (NDS), released on Thursday, said the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains the United States’s most “consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades”. The document is produced every four years to identify threats to the US and offer long-term guidance for the Department of Defense.

“The most comprehensive and serious challenge to US national security is the PRC’s coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and authoritarian preferences,” the report said.

The assessment was released two weeks after the White House issued a similar report in its National Security Strategy, which described China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it”.

The US Congress received a classified version of the National Defense Strategy in March, Thursday’s release is the public, declassified version and is the first by this administration.

President Joe Biden has continued his predecessor Donald Trump’s policy of treating China as the country’s most important geopolitical rival.

Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over numerous points of tension in recent years, including trade issues, the status of Taiwan, claims to the South China Sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.

In response to the National Security Strategy earlier this month, Beijing slammed the US approach to its ties with China, calling on Washington to pursue what it called “win-win cooperation”.

“It is neither popular nor constructive to hold onto the Cold War zero-sum mentality and play up geopolitical conflicts and major power competition,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on October 13.

Thursday’s report said China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is advancing its conventional as well as cyber and space capabilities.

“The PRC is also expanding the PLA’s global footprint and working to establish a more robust overseas and basing infrastructure to allow it to project military power at greater distances,” the report said. “In parallel, the PRC is accelerating the modernization and expansion of its nuclear capabilities.”

“This is the first time in the department’s history that we conducted all of our major strategic reviews together, and that means the NDS, the nuclear posture review and the Missile Defense Review,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters on Thursday.

Washington is committed to modernising its nuclear triad – a military strategy of maintaining launchable nuclear weapons on platforms on land, at sea and in the air, Austin said.

“The fundamental role of US nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States, our allies and our partners,” Austin said.

The Pentagon is stopping one programme for nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missiles, a capability Austin said was not necessary.

After fears have emerged that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Austin warned that such a move would spark a “very significant response from the international community”.

US officials have said they do not see a change in Moscow’s nuclear posture while denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suggestions of using nukes as irresponsible.

The National Defense Strategy described Russia as an “acute threat” to the US.

“We chose the word ‘acute’ carefully,” Austin said. “Unlike China, Russia can’t systemically challenge the United States over the long term.

“But Russian aggression does pose an immediate and sharp threat to our interests and values. And Putin’s reckless war of choice against Ukraine – the worst threat to European security since the end of World War II – has made that very clear for the whole world.”

Beyond Russia and China, the report highlighted threats from Iran, North Korea and “violent extremist organizations”.

“Iran is taking actions that would improve its ability to produce a nuclear weapon should it make the decision to do so, even as it builds and exports extensive missile forces, uncrewed aircraft systems, and advanced maritime capabilities that threaten chokepoints for the free flow of energy resources and international commerce,” it said.

Iran, which is facing anti-government protests, denies seeking a nuclear weapon. Diplomatic efforts between Tehran and Washington to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for international sanctions relief, have stalled in recent months.

The National Defense Strategy also underscored the threat of climate change to US and global security.

“Insecurity and instability related to climate change may tax governance capacity in some countries while heightening tensions between others, risking new armed conflicts and increasing demands for stabilization activities,” it read.

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