Pentagon chief: U.S. faces pivotal years in countering China

United States China
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022. The U.S. is at a pivotal point with China and will need military strength to ensure that American values, not Beijing's, set global norms in the 21st century, he said Saturday.
Susan Walsh | AP

The U.S. is at a pivotal point with China and will need military strength to ensure that American values, not Beijing's, set global norms in the 21st century, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday.

Austin’s speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum capped a week in which the Pentagon was squarely focused on China’s rise and what that might mean for America’s position in the world.

On Monday it released an annual China security report that warned Beijing would likely have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, with no clarity on how China would seek to use them.

On Friday in a dramatic nighttime rollout, Austin was on hand as the public got its first glimpse of the military’s newest, highly classified nuclear stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, which is being designed to best the quickly growing cyber, space and nuclear capabilities of Beijing.

China “is the only country with both the will and, increasingly, the power to reshape its region and the international order to suit its authoritarian preferences,” Austin said Saturday. “So let me be clear: We will not let that happen.”

The Pentagon is also concerned about Russia and remains committed to arming Ukraine while avoiding escalating that conflict into a U.S. war with Moscow, he said at the forum, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

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“We will not be dragged into Putin’s war,” Austin said.

“These next few years will set the terms of our competition with the People’s Republic of China. They will shape the future of security in Europe,” Austin said. “And they will determine whether our children and grandchildren inherit an open world of rules and rights — or whether they face emboldened autocrats who seek to dominate by force and fear.”

Still, between the two nuclear power threats, China remains the greater risk, Austin said.

To meet that rise, “we’re aligning our budget as never before to the China challenge,” Austin said. “In our imperfect world, deterrence does come through strength."

The bomber is part of a major nuclear triad overhaul underway that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated will cost $1.2 trillion through 2046.

It includes the Raider serving as the backbone of the future air leg of the triad, but it also requires modernizing the nation's silo-launched nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and its nuclear submarine fleet.

The Defense Department has the largest discretionary budget of all the federal agencies, and it may receive up to $847 billion in the 2023 budget if Congress passes the current funding bill before this legislative session ends.

However, defense advocates argue it is still not enough to modernize and keep up with China because much of that spending goes to military personnel. The CBO estimates that about one-quarter of the defense budget is spent on personnel costs such as salaries, health care and retirement accounts.