A Defense Department official today stressed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China remains the pacing challenge for the U.S. government.
This is embedded in the National Defense Strategy, and DOD officials are constantly working to ensure the strategic competition with China does not veer into conflict, Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said.
China is actively seeking to overturn the rules-based infrastructure that has kept peace in the Indo-Pacific since the end of World War II. "The [Peoples' Republic of China] is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world's most influential power," Ratner said.
China's army is central to the aims of President Xi Jinping and "in recent years, the PRC has increasingly turned to the PLA [Peoples' Liberation Army] as an instrument of coercive statecraft in support of its global ambitions, including by conducting more dangerous coercive and aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific region," he said.
The U.S. government is working to counter these aims, and Ratner detailed what DOD is doing with allies and partners to advance a "free and open Indo-Pacific vision that is widely shared throughout the region in the world."
DOD is specifically working to strengthen alliances and capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, he said. The department is also developing a more distributed and resilient force posture and building stronger networks of like-minded allies and partners, Ratner said.
"These efforts will play an essential role in sustaining and further strengthening deterrence in the years and decades ahead," the assistant secretary said.
He noted that 2023 has already been a groundbreaking year for U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.
In the U.S.-Japan alliance, U.S. officials support the Japanese decision to acquire new capabilities to strengthen regional deterrence, especially counterstrike capabilities.
As part of the Australia, United Kingdom, United States agreement, "we remain encouraged by the significant progress we've made on developing the optimal pathway for Australia to acquire a conventionally armed nuclear powered submarine capability," he said.
The United States is making significant investments in defense ties with India "to uphold a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific," he said.
Ratner told the senators that the United States will fulfill commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act. This includes "providing Taiwan with self-defense capabilities, and maintaining our own capacity to resist any use of force that jeopardizes the security of the people of Taiwan," he said.
On force posture, the department recently announced major upgrades throughout the region that will make U.S. forces more mobile, more distributed, more resilient and lethal, he said. This includes moves made with Australia and Japan.
"Just days ago, Secretary [of Defense Lloyd J.] Austin [III] was in Manila where the United States in the Philippines announced four new [Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement] sites at strategic locations across the country," Ratner said.
DOD is also looking to develop partners in the region. "Despite [China's] efforts to divide the United States from our allies and partners, DOD is focused on developing a constellation of coalitions to address emerging threats," he said.
This means enhanced cooperation with Japan and Australia, and with Japan and South Korea. It also includes outreach to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; "the Quad" partnership among India, Australia, Japan and the United States; and European allies that are increasingly worried about China's actions.