The Biden Administration released its updated National Defense Strategy (NDS) last week, which named China as the United States’ “most consequential strategic competitor” over the coming decades. The new NDS, last updated under President Trump in 2018, defines the challenges America will face as well as providing the administration’s suggestions for how best to counter Chinese aggression.
The newly declassified report warns that China is actively working to undermine U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, is engaging in coercive activity in Taiwan, and is posing a potential threat to the American homeland through its cyberattack capabilities against important national security infrastructure. These efforts, the report says, make the PRC the “most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security” in a generation.
Defense analysts also identified Russia but downgraded them to an “acute” level threat. Their botched invasion of Ukraine seems to indicate lower-than-anticipated military capabilities, but some threat remains because of their suggestions of possible employment of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Nevertheless, Russia is now seen as a “transitory danger” compared to China because of the latter’s “large economy and growing military” capabilities.
However, both countries pose a greater threat than foreign terrorists because of their “cyberwarfare and space capabilities” which could be used to threaten military mobilization and global positioning systems crucial for daily military operations and commonly applicable in daily civilian life as well.
This report comes weeks after the Heritage Foundation’s annual review of global military power found American military posture to be “weak” and “at significant risk of not being able to meet the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities.” Of the six major metrics of measurement, only two were judged to be adequately strong: the Marine Corps and U.S. nuclear capabilities. The remaining four—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force—all received marginal, weak, or very weak ratings. The poor ratings reflected an overall downgrade of the U.S. military score, marking the first time American strength backslid since the inception of Heritage’s index in 2015.
The Trump Administration ignited the debate about the need for an expanded and well-maintained U.S. Navy. During his 2016 campaign, then-candidate Trump pledged to build a 350-ship navy and turn the tide on America’s long, self-inflicted decline of naval power. Unfortunately, Trump was unable to hit the ground running after coming into office in January 2017. His first Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, had “no concrete plan to reach Trump’s specific pledge” of increased naval ships. His second Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, worked just as hard against increasing naval power, even going so far as to block a consensus Navy-Marine Corps plan in the 2020 Integrated Force Structure Analysis which would have begun the expansion process. It is believed that Esper thought Trump’s plans for an expanded navy would interfere with his own goals for the Army.
President Trump did not acquire someone in his military apparatus willing to “understand the goal and advocate for it publicly” until he appointed Ambassador Robert O’Brien as his fourth (and final) National Security Advisor in September of 2019. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien fought for expansion of the navy, with a goal of reaching at least 350 ships in 10 years’ time and over 400 ships in two decades. Unfortunately, this effort came too late in Trump’s term to formalize any lasting change in strategy. Now, Biden’s most recent defense budget scaled back planned expansion of naval forces, and it even called for the retirement of two dozen existing naval ships. Over half of these ships had not reached the end of their projected operational life.
Last week’s report seems to be the first real acknowledgement of the sincerity of the Chinese threat to American hegemony in the Pacific by the Defense Department. This comes a week after the Justice Department’s own announcement about Chinese threats to the American judicial system. At one point, China even attempted to build connections within the Federal Reserve system in order to gain access to nonpublic data. Overall, the Biden Administration’s newfound rhetorical fortitude should be a welcome sign for those wary of Beijing. However, it is far from full recognition of the need to act immediately.
Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher took to Twitter to outline his thoughts on Biden’s declassified National Defense Strategy. He criticized Biden’s plan to divest from traditional hard-power and focus more heavily on “unproven technology” which will not be operational “until the next decade.” This seems contradictory to the report’s own conclusion that this decade will be the decisive decade in the “100-year marathon with China,” he concluded, while also stressing the need to “restore deterrence and invest in hard power” before it is too late.
The disconnect between identifying this decade as crucial in the competition with China and then punting the solution outside of the crucial window is a short sight that the Department of Defense and the Biden Administration should review carefully moving forward. While the admission of a great power competition with the People’s Republic of China by the Pentagon is long-overdue and welcomed, talk alone will not be enough. The national security community must get serious about addressing the growing cyber, conventional, societal, and economic threats that the PRC poses to the West and the American way of life.