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Austin Tells Reagan Forum How U.S. Will Take on Challenge of China

"China is not 10-feet tall," Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said at the Reagan Library in California today, and the United States is not a "country that fears competition."

China is a challenge to the United States and all democracies, but America and its allies will rise to the challenge. "And we're going to meet this one with confidence and resolve — not panic and pessimism," Austin said.

Austin noted that President Joe Biden has said the United States is in "stiff competition" with China, and he has said that China is the U.S. military's "pacing challenge." 

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China is using all elements of national power to overturn the international rules-based architecture that has served the world so well since the end of World War II. 

In his speech to the Reagan National Defense Forum, Austin delved into the competition with China, and what the Defense Department is doing to preserve the rules-based construct.

He noted that the world has seen two decades of "breakneck modernization" by the People's Liberation Army. "China's military is on pace to become a peer competitor to the United States in Asia — and, eventually, around the world," he said. "China's leaders are expanding their ability to project force and to establish a global network of military bases. Meanwhile, the PLA is rapidly improving many of its capabilities, including strike, air, missile-defense and anti-submarine measures. And it's increasingly focused on integrating its information, cyber and space operations." 

The last is combat domains with few rules and that increase the risk of escalation and miscalculation, he said. 

China is financing key technology sectors that have both civilian and military applications. 

China's nuclear posture is advancing as well, and the secretary said that China will possess at least a thousand nuclear warheads by 2030 and they are building a nuclear triad to deliver them. 

"Now, we always assess not just capabilities but also intentions and actions," he said. "The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have been increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the prevailing order — and about their aim of displacing America from its global leadership role. China's President, Xi Jinping, regularly talks about 'great changes unseen in the world in a century.' And he recently assured his fellow Party members that 'time and momentum are on China's side.'" 

A man stands at a lectern speaking into a microphone.
Keynote Address
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III delivers the keynote address during the 2021 Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Dec. 4, 2021.
Photo By: Chad McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 211204-D-TT977-0195

China has a dismal human rights record and is bullying countries in Asia and Africa. "Beijing is misusing technology to advance its repressive agenda at home and exporting the tools of autocracy abroad," Austin said. 

Given all this, Austin does not see conflict as inevitable. The United States does not want a new Cold War. 

"We're determined to deter aggression, and to prevent conflict, and to establish common sense guardrails," he said. "And our new initiatives are part of a government-wide approach that draws on all tools of national power to meet the China challenge."

The concept undergirding next year's National Defense Strategy is "integrated deterrence," Austin said. "It means integrating our efforts across domains and across the spectrum of conflict to ensure that the U.S. military — in close cooperation with the rest of the U.S. government and our allies and partners — makes the folly and costs of aggression very clear," he said. 

He discussed two elements of integrated defense: partnership and innovation. 

"First, we're building on a lesson that I learned over four decades in uniform: In war and in peace, we're always stronger when we work together with our friends. That defines our approach to the China challenge," Austin said. 

This does not mean the United States will build an Asian NATO or an anti-China coalition like the one that defeated ISIS. "And we're not asking countries to choose between the United States and China," he said. "Instead, we're working to advance an international system that is free, stable and open." 

This means working closely with long-time allies and new partners around the globe, he said. The secretary noted that he has made three trips in 10 months to the Indo-Pacific. "In every conversation with our partners, I hear the same thing again and again: a call for the United States to continue playing our stabilizing role in the Indo-Pacific," he said. "And make no mistake: we will." 

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Fireside Chat
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III answers questions from Fox News correspondent Brett Baier during a "fireside chat" at the 2021 Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Dec. 4, 2021.
Photo By: Chad McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 211204-D-TT977-0292

This means more exercises with allies and partners, helping partners build security capabilities, and encouraging European allies to contribute to security in the Indo-Pacific, he said. 

All this is in support of the status quo. "We remain steadfast to our one-China policy, and our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to support Taiwan's ability to defend itself while also maintaining our capacity to resist any resort to force that would jeopardize the security of the people of Taiwan," he said. 

There are real differences — in interests and values — between China and the United States. "But the way that you manage them counts," Austin said. "We're going to be open and candid with China's leaders. As President Biden put it, we need to talk 'honestly and directly to one another about our priorities and our intentions.' And big powers should be models of transparency and communication." 

The United States seeks to open lines of communication with China's defense leaders — especially in a crisis. This should help reduce risk and prevent miscalculations, he said. 

America's unparalleled network of allies and partners is an asymmetric advantage over China. Innovation is another.

"Integrated deterrence requires us to weave together cutting-edge technology, operational concepts and state-of-the-art capabilities to seamlessly dissuade aggression in any form, domain or theater," Austin said. "That means that innovation lies at the heart of American security." 

There have been incredible advances in artificial intelligence, edge computing and nanotechnology in the United States. "Nobody innovates better than the United States, but we can't take that for granted, he said. 

DOD must change the way it does business or risk losing that asymmetric advantage. "Let's face it, for far too long, it's been far too hard for innovators and entrepreneurs to work with the department," he said. "And the barriers to entry for working in national security are often just too steep."

It takes too long to get innovation to American service members. Good ideas and capabilities are demonstrated, but often fall into what many call the "valley of death" before capabilities get fielded. 

"It's bad enough that some companies get stuck in the valley of death, but some brilliant entrepreneurs and hungry innovators don't even want to try to cross it and work with us," he said.

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Secretary Smile
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III delivers the keynote address during the 2021 Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Dec. 4, 2021.
Photo By: Chad McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 211204-D-TT977-0356

Austin said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — a hothouse for ideas — is now "connecting its top research teams with corporate leaders and U.S. investors so that those teams can build successful businesses with the cutting-edge technologies they develop," he said. "We're doubling down on our Small Business Innovation Research program. This program helps fuel American firms to pursue R&D tailored to the department's unique tech requirements. And so far this year, we've awarded funds to more than 2,500 small businesses working on groundbreaking tech." 

The department has opened new technology hubs in Seattle and Chicago to add to the ones already working in Austin, Texas and Boston. "The goal here is simple: to connect with new talent who will help us compete and win on challenges from countering UAVs to responsibly leading the AI revolution," he said.

These efforts and more are working, because "when we maintain our technological edge, we maintain our military edge," the secretary said. "Let me be clear: The United States has an advantage that no autocracy can match: our combination of free enterprise, free minds and free people. Even in times of challenge, our democracy is a powerful engine for its own renewal. So I will put the American system up against any other. And I'll do so with great pride and total confidence."

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