- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 10, 2021

President Biden on Wednesday issued an urgent call for a governmentwide effort to reevaluate and confront the threat posed by China, making his first trip to the Pentagon as president to announce a high-level task force that could overhaul American military policy toward its chief 21st-century rival.

Mr. Biden said the 15-member task force, comprising civilian and military representatives, will make recommendations to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin within four months on U.S. military strategy, technology, force alignment in the Pacific region, intelligence, defense relations with China, alliances and partnerships, and a host of other issues that will deeply affect the growing competition between the two world powers.

The president made his policy move just weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that Washington’s protectionist trade policies and hostility to China risked launching a “new cold war,” as Beijing’s investments abroad reshape global economic alliances while the two countries increasingly challenge each other with bold military exercises in the Pacific.

While Mr. Biden spoke passionately about the need for diplomacy as a tool to avoid war, the Pentagon’s China task force shows that the president is taking serious steps to ensure America is prepared for a worst-case scenario.

“We need to meet the growing challenges posed by China,” Mr. Biden said in a brief speech during his first visit to the Pentagon since taking office Jan. 20.



Mr. Biden’s aides have talked of broadly building on President Trump’s more confrontational approach to China’s communist leaders while toning down the rhetorical fire and seeking areas where the two sides can cooperate. Mr. Biden has yet to roll back punitive tariffs that Mr. Trump imposed in a bid to influence Chinese behavior as the U.S. review proceeds.

Confronting China “will require a whole-of-government effort, bipartisan cooperation in Congress, and strong alliances and partnerships,” the president said. “That’s how we’ll meet the China challenge and ensure the American people win the competition of the future.”

Flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden pledged to bring a “responsible” end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan. He suggested for the first time publicly that he may not stick to the Trump administration’s May 1 deadline for a full U.S. troop withdrawal.

Mr. Biden’s quick moves on China and Afghanistan reflect his administration’s strong desire to put its stamp on U.S. foreign policy and military affairs, rapidly overhauling some of the more controversial diplomatic and national security policies that Mr. Trump put into place.

Just days after taking office, Mr. Biden issued an executive order to remove restrictions preventing transgender Americans from joining the military. Last week, the president ordered a militarywide review of America’s troop deployments abroad, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Pentagon also has ordered a militarywide examination of extremism in the ranks, reflecting a broader push across the entire government to prevent domestic attacks by extremist groups and address hateful ideologies.

Mr. Austin has taken the dramatic and unprecedented step of essentially dissolving more than three dozen Pentagon advisory boards, in part in an effort to clear out last-minute appointments of Trump allies, such as former political advisers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie.

Diplomacy first

Mr. Austin, who has promised strong action on extremism, climate change and other issues, echoed the administration’s broader approach to foreign policy.

The president “knows this department will always be ready to fight and win, should he call upon us,” Mr. Austin said. “But he also believes that his first call should be to our diplomats, with us in full support. And when the president talks about leading from a position of strength, this is what he means.”

On Afghanistan, Mr. Biden and Mr. Austin have given clear indications that they do not feel bound by the withdrawal timeline set by the Trump administration’s February 2020 deal with the insurgent Taliban movement.

That deal’s exit plan was predicated on the Taliban reducing attacks, ensuring terrorist groups such as al Qaeda don’t find safe haven once again in the country and making progress on direct power-sharing talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

American military and diplomatic officials across the Trump and Biden administrations have repeatedly said in recent months that the Taliban are not living up to all of their commitments, raising questions about whether it would be wise for the U.S. to fully pull out. U.S. allies with troops in the theater also have questioned the logic of the withdrawal timeline.

The president said he would work with Mr. Austin as well as leaders around the world to bring “responsible” ends to wars that have “dragged on for far too long.” Biden administration officials have maintained that the final U.S. exit from Afghanistan must be based on conditions on the ground, not predetermined timelines. The U.S. has about 2,500 troops inside the country.

The China task force will be led by Ely Ratner, who currently serves as a special assistant to the secretary of defense and is a former executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security.

From 2015 to 2017, Mr. Ratner was deputy national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden

The task force, officials said, will focus on a variety of topics, all with the goal of creating a clear American defense policy toward China that stretches across all corners of the military.

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