President Joe Biden has pledged an era of “extreme competition” with the People’s Republic of China. For the U.S., that means being able to challenge Beijing for the commanding heights of global commerce, to shape the rules around trade and technology, and—if push comes to shove— to fight and win a war with the world’s second-largest economy. The question is how to steer the behemoth U.S. military, which has almost 2 million personnel across six branches, away from the Middle East and terrorism to focus on a new region and different threats, 20 years after the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III has dubbed China “the pacing challenge”—military-industrial verbiage for the leading competitor. In June, Austin issued a directive aimed at reorienting the Department of Defense to better compete with Beijing. That echoed signals of a pivot under the past two presidential administrations.
Washington, however, is often better at articulating grand ambitions than following through on them. That’s especially true of the Pentagon, the world’s largest bureaucracy. The U.S. military’s priorities have been forged by two decades of warfare in the Middle East, and its spending habits are deeply entrenched in congressional politics. Even inside the building, officials warn of a “say/do gap” when it comes to taking on China. That gap persists, though Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan may do more than the actions of his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump to achieve a long-promised tilt toward Asia.
Concerned members of Congress are explicit about the problem. Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, cites potential threats ranging from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to China-made drones that the Pentagon keeps buying, despite fears of handing national security secrets to Beijing. “If we’re going to win the 21st century, the Pentagon is going to have to walk the walk and make the tough decisions needed to beat” the Chinese Communist Party, Gallagher says.
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