In his speech last week in Singapore on the security situation in Southeast Asia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated the Biden administration’s emphasis on the need for multinational cooperation to meet the challenges from China and North Korea.
“I’m here to represent a new American administration, but also to reaffirm enduring American commitments,” he said. “… I’ve come to Southeast Asia to deepen America’s bonds with the allies and partners on whom our common security depends. Our network of alliances and friendships is an unparalleled strategic asset. And I never take an ally for granted.”
The latter point reflected the charge that the Trump administration ignored America’s allies and strategic partners in the region. While Trump may have seen them as burdensome freeloaders, the people he chose and empowered to implement U.S. national security policy certainly did not share that view.
Austin’s speech was an opportunity to mitigate some of the doubt about his own stewardship of Pentagon policy. He acknowledged when appointed that his Army experience in the Middle East left him unfamiliar with security challenges in the Indo-Pacific, and he promised to be a quick learner of our “pacing threat” or, more recently, our “pacing challenge” from China.
But one of Austin’s first major policy decisions was a serious step back from the firm Trump administration pushback against Comm-unist Chinese espionage and technology theft. In May, he reversed his predecessor’s listing of Chinese technology giant Xiaomi as one of the “Communist Chinese military companies” no longer eligible for direct or indirect investment in the United States.
Then, in June, Austin appeared before the House Armed Services Committee with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley. Milley essentially dismissed China’s “near-term, next 12, 24 months” threat to Taiwan because, he said, China was not yet capable of a full-scale land invasion, the only aggressive Chinese move that he, and presumably Austin, envisioned.
Beyond capabilities, Milley was asked about Beijing’s intentions. “Do they have the intent to attack our seas in the near term to fight us in the next year or two? My assessment, and based on what I’ve seen right now, is no,” he said. “That can always change. Intent is something that can change quickly.”
He said Taiwan is not just China’s core concern. “It’s also a core national security interest of the United States to ensure that whatever happens, with respect to Taiwan, happens peacefully and we don’t have a general conflict in the region or globally. We support, with the Taiwan Relations Act, et cetera … a peaceful resolution of the issue between Taiwan and China.”
Milley noted the Trump-Biden administrations’ continuity on China policy: “China is the pacing threat for us in uniform, the United States. And it’s been directed now by the secretary of Defense, the president, and the previous, as well. So we are gearing our capabilities, our programs, our training, our skills, our activities, et cetera, militarily with China in mind.”
Austin concurred with Milley’s overall assessment and was asked why the Biden defense budget did not include funding requests for “many of the top needs identified in the . . . [Indo-Pacific Command] report.” Austin replied that the Department of Defense (DOD) intends to fund all Indo-Pacific Command requests.
“China is the most challenging competitor that we’ll face, and so we have to prepare. … As we do that … it also prepares us well for other things. We’ll see threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and we’ll continue to see a threat from transnational terrorism. … There’s always something that we weren’t really sighted on, but we were prepared to address because we prepared for the most challenging threat.”
In Singapore, he said, “[W]e face a range of challenges in this region that demand common action … the specter of coercion from rising powers … the nuclear dangers from North Korea … the struggles against repression inside countries such as Myanmar … and leaders who ignore the rule of law and abuse the basic rights and dignity that all people deserve.”
Left unsaid was that China, which Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was then visiting, is implicated in all of those issues. Austin noted, “President Biden has made clear that the United States will lead with diplomacy. And the Department of Defense will be here to provide the resolve and reassurance that America’s diplomats can use to help prevent conflict from breaking out in the first place.”
It is not known whether Sherman felt fortified by Biden’s defense strategy in her “frank and open” talks with the Chinese. But neither she in Beijing nor Austin in Singapore delivered the one deterrent message that would accomplish the greatest good on the most dangerous military flashpoint in the region — that America will defend the Southeast Asian country of Taiwan against Chinese aggression.
Austin did not include Taiwan at all in his general litany of common dangers, and paid it only sparse attention in his speech. After describing the important examples of regional security cooperation — with Japan, Singapore, Australia, Korea — he added, “And meanwhile, we’re working with Taiwan to increase its own capabilities and to increase its readiness to deter threats and coercion — upholding our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, and consistent with our One China policy.”
The Taipei Times reported the statement of appreciation from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that tactfully described Washington’s security support a bit differently: “The Biden administration has repeatedly said that its commitment to Taiwan is ‘rock solid’ under the Taiwan Relations Act and the ‘Six Assurances,’ while engaging with its allies to underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
In addition to skipping the “Six Assurances” that President Reagan gave Taiwan, Austin considered only one of the two security mandates of the Taiwan Relations Act — the U.S. obligation to provide weapons for Taiwan’s self defense. He failed to mention the requirement that Washington will “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.
Every administration since Jimmy Carter’s has downplayed that language because it implies the U.S. will directly defend Taiw-an. It is precisely the subject of the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA), which Trump let die in the last Congress — and which Biden is leaving to languish so far in this one. TIPA means deterrence.
Austin did have one solid achievement on his Indo-Pacific visit. After meeting with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, the two announced that the termination letter for the Visiting Forces Agreement was now withdrawn and bilateral security cooperation will proceed uninterrupted.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.