During a press briefing on February 19, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described China as the Pentagon’s “primary pacing challenge.” Austin was speaking shortly after attending his first NATO defense ministers meeting as the Pentagon chief. He outlined the challenges NATO faces, including “a resurgent Russia, disruptive technologies, climate change, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the persistent threat of terrorism.” Still, it’s clear that “an increasingly aggressive China,” as Austin phrased it, was first and foremost in his mind.
This is hardly surprising. A sea change within the Defense Department occurred during the Trump years, as the Pentagon came to prioritize a return to so-called “great power competition” above all else. This agenda has continued into the first weeks of the Biden administration, with Austin vowing to work with other NATO countries to defend “the international rules-based order, which China has consistently undermined for its own interests.”
But just as the Trump administration was forced to contend with other issues—namely, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which many in the Pentagon would rather leave behind—so, too, has the Biden team. Austin, to his credit, made it clear that he had time to deliberate the course forward in those conflicts; even though neither conflict is easy, there is little political will to remain involved in them and the Defense Department has other priorities.
On Afghanistan, Austin said the new administration is coming “to grips with the reality on the ground.” But there is a large gap between the “reality” of the war in Afghanistan, and how some in Washington prefer to see it.