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Biden's Asia policy

Biden taps ex-army general as defense chief to navigate Indo-Pacific

Lloyd Austin led counterinsurgency ops but China strategy unknown

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden seen with Gen. Lloyd Austin, center, then the U.S. Forces Iraq commander, on Dec. 1, 2011, in Baghdad during an award ceremony. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Forces Iraq)

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK -- U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he has chosen Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star army general as his secretary of defense, who, if confirmed, would be the first Black person to serve in the post.

"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 -- Gen. Austin has demonstrated exemplary leadership, character, and command," Biden said in a statement.

"He is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment, and I look forward to once again working closely with him as a trusted partner to lead our military with dignity and resolve, revitalize our alliances in the face of global threats, and ensure the safety and security of the American people."

Biden aims to bolster U.S. relations with allies to counter China's rise. Austin will be tasked with repairing these ties that were fractured under President Donald Trump.

Austin, in past congressional hearings, has emphasized the need to work with regional partners -- not just in defense but also through diplomacy -- while minimizing the direct use of American force. It is a stance that broadly echoes Biden's alliance-centered foreign policy and could underlie the administration's approach to regional security challenges in Asia such as in the South China Sea.

A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Austin has commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and became vice chief of staff of the army in 2012. He led the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group during his tenure as commander of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016.

In that capacity, Austin argued for a strategic approach of building partner capacity to "lessen the need for costly U.S. military intervention."

"We cannot solve every challenge through direct U.S. military action alone," he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in March 2016, when he led U.S. Central Command, whose area of responsibility spans across the Middle East.

"American efforts, including the U.S. military, can buy time and we may encourage others to do what is necessary. However, we cannot do it for them. Only the people of the region can bring about the needed changes," he said.

It is unclear how exactly Austin's experience fighting terrorism in the Middle East will translate to the U.S. rivalry with China, which is quickly emerging as a top security priority for Washington. For example, anti-terror operations are mainly centered around the army, while competition with China will involve mostly the navy and the air force. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been decreasing its involvement in the Middle East.

"The focus of the Pentagon over the next several years will most likely be on the Indo-Pacific and on China's rise. Gen. Austin's CENTCOM experience will need to be augmented by someone who knows China and East Asia better," said Husain Haqqani, director of South and Central Asia at the Washington think tank Hudson Institute and Pakistan's former ambassador to the U.S., who interacted with Austin when he was at the Joint Staff between command positions in Iraq.

The appointment comes amid a push for more a more diverse political leadership from various wings of the Democratic Party. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who endorsed Biden and paved the way for Biden's crucial primary win in that state, expressed frustration last month that not enough Black people had been named to top positions. The progressive wing of the party were also calling for more minority appointments.

Trump's threat of sending the military to break up nationwide protests against racial inequality and police brutality earlier this year is believed to have caused frictions within the armed forces, where roughly 40% of members belong to a racial or ethnic minority, and addressing these tensions is considered crucial to morale.

Austin retired in 2016, and has since founded a security consulting company. Because the defense secretary legally must be retired from the military for at least seven years before taking office, his appointment will require a congressional waiver.

The highest-ranking uniformed officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, also comes from the army and has a similar background to Austin.

The U.S., meanwhile, has a long tradition of questioning whether a former soldier should be secretary of defense.

"He will face lots of criticism from those who disagree with retired uniformed officers leading the Pentagon as civilians," said a former diplomat who knows both Austin and James Mattis, a former four-star marine corps general who was Trump's first defense secretary.

"Austin is a soldier, not a soldier-scholar like General Mattis," the former diplomat said.

Biden had not included his pick for defense secretary when he unveiled nominations for several key national security-related posts in late last month, including secretary of state. Many expected the post to go to Michele Flournoy, who was undersecretary of defense for policy under former President Barack Obama.

But her close ties to the defense industry triggered pushback from progressives. Since her stint as undersecretary of defense, Flournoy has co-founded a consulting company that counts major military contractors among its clients. She has also urged the U.S. government to boost financial assistance to defense companies with cutting-edge technologies to better compete with China.

Our Revolution, an organization that supports progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, issued a statement on Nov. 30 with four other organizations calling Flournoy "ill-suited" for the post, saying her hawkish stance on China is "potentially catastrophic" at a time where countries must come together in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Flournoy likely faced disagreements with Biden over U.S. troops abroad as well. Flournoy had pushed for significantly increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan during the Obama years, an idea Biden opposed.

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