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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has called his pick for defense secretary, retired Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin, a “trailblazing leader” with “deep experience … in critical Pentagon roles.” But there were two words noticeably absent from Biden’s announcement of his choice: “China” and “Indo-Pacific.”

Biden used a statement from his transition team and an op-ed in the Atlantic magazine Tuesday to explain his surprise choice of Austin, who would be the nation’s first Black defense chief.

"Throughout his lifetime of dedicated service — and in the many hours we've spent together in the White House Situation Room and with our troops overseas — General Austin has demonstrated exemplary leadership, character, and command," Biden said in the statement.

"He is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment."

For Biden, the most pressing challenge will be the domestic response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has torn through the U.S., leaving more than 285,000 dead. Tapping Austin, who oversaw the U.S. drawdown in Iraq as commander of American forces in the Middle East, would fill a crucial gap as the administration looks to the military to help with the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.

“The next secretary of defense will need to immediately quarterback an enormous logistics operation to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines widely and equitably,” Biden said. “Austin oversaw the largest logistical operation undertaken by the Army in six decades — the Iraq drawdown.”

But the glaring omission of any discussion of China or the Indo-Pacific region — which the Biden camp has said will be a top foreign policy priority for his administration — risked sending an alarming message to regional allies such as Japan amid hopes for a continued U.S.-led charge confronting an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping speaks next to then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during talks at a hotel in Beijing in August 2011. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping speaks next to then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during talks at a hotel in Beijing in August 2011. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

“Biden is rightfully focused on [Austin’s] strength in logistics that pertains to combating the pandemic,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “But experience in counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East is not what we need to deal with threats in the Indo-Pacific.”

In terms of his China policy, Biden has revealed little, though he has said his approach would work to rebuild U.S. alliances and enlist coalitions to constrain any malicious activities by Beijing while relying less on the military.

“We need leaders like Lloyd Austin who understand that our military is only one instrument of our national security,” Biden said. “Keeping America strong and secure demands that we draw on all our tools.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a hard line against China, shifting the rivalry between Washington and Beijing into overdrive and plunging relations to their lowest point in decades over disputes ranging from trade and tech to the South China Sea and the coronavirus. In its latest move, the White House on Monday slapped sanctions on 14 members of the standing committee of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, which passed the sweeping national security law on Hong Kong earlier this year.

Although critics have lambasted Trump’s approach as merely lashing out without a plan, allies such as Japan and China hawks in the U.S. have feared that Biden’s election could mean a return to a more conciliatory stance similar to the one seen under President Barack Obama. That would marginalize allies and extinguish momentum for what the White House has termed “strategic competition” with the Asian powerhouse.

Biden and his team say that even if they wanted to, turning back the clock and attempting to rekindle the days of Obama would be an impossibility.

“The threats we face today are not the same as those we faced 10 or even five years ago,” Biden said. “We must prepare to meet the challenges of the future, not keep fighting the wars of the past. We must build a foreign policy that leads with diplomacy and revitalizes our alliances, putting American leadership back at the table and rallying the world to meet global threats to our security.”

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama sits next to then-Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin during a briefing from top military leaders at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, in September 2014. | REUTERS
Then-U.S. President Barack Obama sits next to then-Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin during a briefing from top military leaders at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, in September 2014. | REUTERS

Some critics of the pick had pointed to an earlier front-runner for the post, Obama-era Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, as someone who could have cemented the hard line on China. In an article in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Flournoy stressed the need for the U.S. to strengthen its ability — and willingness — to deter China, pointedly noting that the military should be able to "sink all" Chinese vessels "within 72 hours" in the South China Sea.

Prior to Biden’s announcement, Japanese defense and diplomatic officials had said they were taking a wait-and-see approach with Biden and his Cabinet picks, though some have privately voiced concerns that the incoming administration could be less willing to confront Beijing, especially as Washington is distracted by the pandemic.

Experts say Beijing, meanwhile, is closely watching the president-elect and assessing his views on China.

“Biden's foreign policy team has stated U.S.-China competition is mainly economic and technological, not military,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a regional security expert and professor at Meikai University. “Picking someone as secretary of defense who lacks understanding of China and the Indo-Pacific endorses this perception.”

Kotani said that while Biden has been calling for democracies to join his campaign to pressure Beijing, China's immediate neighbors, including Tokyo, are “concerned about repercussions from Beijing, [and] would hesitate to join unless Washington fully reassures them.”

Biden’s pick has also raised eyebrows among some U.S. lawmakers and security experts, with a number of them voicing concerns.

“An entire essay from Joe Biden on who he wants to be Secretary of Defense that starts with Iraq, mentions Syria at some length, and says absolutely ZERO about #China,” Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote Tuesday on Twitter in response to the Atlantic article.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is received by then-commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey in Baghdad in November 2011. | REUTERS
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is received by then-commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey in Baghdad in November 2011. | REUTERS

Democratic heavyweights, however, welcomed the pick, which requires Senate confirmation.

“President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, General Lloyd Austin, brings a great understanding of the challenges facing our nation’s defense,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Ultimately, Biden — and Austin — will have to address the China issue and larger concerns about the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific, lest the administration alienate its key allies.

“Biden’s failure to even mention China, the Indo-Pacific or the strategic challenges faced by the United States and its allies and partners sends a disturbing signal to the region about the president’s priorities,” said Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defense at the U.S. Studies Centre in Australia. “It’s like endorsing a secretary of defense during the Cold War and not mentioning Europe or the Soviet Union.”

Townshend added that regardless of what Austin brings to the table, his selection in an era of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific “implies a prioritization of domestic issues over regional security concerns.”

“This is exactly what U.S. allies and partners in the region feared,” he said.

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