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Deputy Defense Secretary Says Conflict With China Is Not Inevitable

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The challenge posed by China sets the pace for most U.S. defense requirements; but, despite concerns, diplomacy is important, and conflict with China is neither desirable nor inevitable, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks said today.

In a virtual address to the Aspen Security Forum, Hicks talked about the Defense Department's competition with China and what the department is doing to meet that challenge, especially regarding innovation and modernization.

A woman speaks while seated at a table with an American flag behind her.
Remarks to the Aspen Security Forum
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks delivers remarks to the Aspen Security Forum from the Pentagon, April 30, 2021.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Untalan
VIRIN: 210430-D-DO439-574

"Beijing has the economic, military and technological capability to challenge the international system and America's interests within it. This is happening all along the continuum of conflict — from routine statecraft, through the use of sharp power or gray-zone tactics, to the potential for sustained combat operations and an expanded and capable nuclear enterprise," Hicks said.

As an example, Beijing continues to leverage its maritime militia to press its unlawful claims in the South China Sea, she said.

Marines file into a helicopter.
Marine Training
Marines with Battalion Landing Team, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, participate in fast-rope training aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island in the South China Sea, April 12, 2021.
Photo By: Navy Seaman Nadia Lund
VIRIN: 210412-N-IV962-1157

China's military capabilities are rapidly advancing in a number of areas, she said. Beijing continues to make progress — strengthening its ability to conduct joint operations — and it fields increasingly sophisticated conventional systems, such as long-range precision missiles and integrated air defense systems. 

China is also advancing its space and cyber capabilities, Hicks said, adding that China presents a prolific and effective cyber espionage threat and possesses substantial cyberattack capabilities.

Two ships are alongside each other at sea; a cable is extended from one to the other and waves crash below.
Replenishment at Sea
The USNS Pecos conducts a replenishment at sea with the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Mustin in the South China Sea, April 10, 2021.
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Arthur R
VIRIN: 210410-N-YA628-1357

Despite these growing concerns, Hicks said open channels of communications and diplomacy with China are important.

"We anticipate the U.S. military will often serve as a supporting player to diplomatic, economic and other tools," she said.

Central to DOD's value in deterring bad behavior from Beijing is demonstrating the role and capability to credibly deter China's aggression, she said. "This will best position us to avoid a conflict."

Hicks said allies and partners are important in deterring Chinese aggression.

The reflection of a ship at sea shows on the lenses of a pair of binoculars.
Roosevelt Reflection
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt sails in the South China Sea, April 9, 2021.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Ethan Jaymes Morrow
VIRIN: 210409-N-LD903-1143

Also, the department's budget and research investments will focus on the threat and include nuclear modernization, cybersecurity, long-range fires, autonomy, artificial intelligence, shipbuilding and microelectronics, she said.

Incentivizing innovation, cutting red tape and working closely with the private sector and other government agencies are also important, she said. "This means being able to share best practices and key findings focused on the most important national security challenges."

Cooperation with Congress is also critical to ensuring the department receives the support required to deter China's aggression, she said.

"Let there be no doubt, China presents a real and enduring challenge," she emphasized.

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