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To counter China, Austin vows to shore up alliances with others in region


Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Saturday at the 2021 Reagan National Defense Forum, in Simi Valley, Calif., where he delivered the keynote address.

By Jennifer Steinhauer and Julian E. Barnes


Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said Saturday that the Biden administration would push both allies in the Pacific and U.S. businesses to step up efforts to counter the increasingly urgent threat of China, and that the Pentagon was prepared to help Ukraine better defend itself against Russia as tensions flare between the two countries.


“America is a Pacific power,” Austin declared during a speech at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, the first in-person meeting of defense officials and experts since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re not asking countries to choose between the United States and China. Instead, we’re working to advance an international system that is free and stable and open.”


In one of his most prominent speeches since the United States pulled troops out of Afghanistan, bringing a chaotic end to America’s longest war, Austin made little mention of the past two decades of U.S. military efforts in the Middle East, turning the focus instead almost exclusively on Beijing, whose nuclear, cyber and economic gains have increasingly rattled U.S. officials over three administrations.


He offered the broad outlines of his strategy for dealing with China, something he called “integrated deterrence,” which relies on both strengthening work with allies and partners in the region and pushing the U.S. technology industry to keep ahead of Chinese innovations.


The Biden administration has carefully tried to both insist that the U.S. is not in conflict with China, and acknowledge that the competition between the two countries has intensified. President Joe Biden has declined to lift tariffs initiated by the Trump administration and has continued to push China to uphold commitments it had agreed to as part of a trade deal signed during the final days of the Trump administration.


In panel after panel Saturday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, military officials and defense and national security experts rang alarm bells about China, including its increasing military power and its attacks on American satellite, as well as economic concerns such as the lack of skilled American workers to keep up with Chinese production and dominance, especially in semiconductors.


“There is a real possibility if we ever got into a conflict, you could see attacks on our power grid or transportation sector,” warned Christine Wormuth, the secretary of the Army.


At the same time, speakers also expressed concern that President Vladimir Putin of Russia might exploit the United States’ intense focus on China to quietly pursue his own ambitions in his region.


A new report from U.S. intelligence agencies shows Russia has drawn up plans to possibly invade Ukraine with as many as 175,000 forces as soon as early next year. Intelligence officials do not believe Putin has made a decision on whether to attack Ukraine, but the threat of a renewed invasion has become more acute.


Austin noted that Russia had invaded Ukraine before, a reference to 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea and its military directed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.


The current troop buildup in the border region, as well as Russian disinformation activity and cyberoperations, are all concerning to the U.S., Austin said.


“We remain focused on this,” Austin said. “We are certainly committed to helping Ukraine defend its sovereign territory.”


The Biden administration has been trying to use concerns over both Russia’s and China’s intentions to bolster support among allies.


In his remarks, Austin stressed that the U.S. did not intend to build a new NATO for Asia. Rather, Washington is trying to better coordinate countries to block efforts by China to dominate the region, he said, pointing to the recent deal to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarine as an example of strengthening alliances.


“They are moving on their goals,” David H. Berger, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said of China. “We have to operate in a different way.”


Although Austin said U.S. tech firms needed to help the country keep ahead of Chinese know-how, he acknowledged that the Pentagon risked falling behind China in various areas if it did not find ways to work better with Silicon Valley.


“The barriers to entry for working in national security are often just too steep,” Austin said.

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