Lloyd Austin brands China as ‘only competitor’ to US on world stage

Russia is an ‘acute threat’ but has been deterred from attacking Nato, US defence chief said

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin gives a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. Reuters
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China is America's “only competitor” in the international arena, while Russia presents an “acute threat” to US interests, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said on Thursday.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly the power to do so,” Mr Austin said.

The Pentagon chief had been speaking at a briefing to unveil the first National Defence Strategy document for President Joe Biden's administration.

In the document, rivalry with China took centre stage, becoming one of the Pentagon's top priorities.

“My team and I have been laser-focused on this issue since day one,” the US defence chief said.

In contrast, Mr Austin called Russia “an acute threat” but not a US competitor.

“Unlike China, Russia can’t systemically challenge the United States over the long term,” he said.

“But Russian aggression does pose an immediate and sharp threat to our interests and values.”

However, the US defence chief called Russia’s invasion a “reckless war of choice against Ukraine” and “the worst threat to European security since the end of World War II”.

At the same time, Mr Austin said the US has “not seen anything to indicate that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made a decision to use a dirty bomb”.

He was referring to recent concerns raised by Russia that Ukraine was planning to use a “dirty bomb” — an explosive containing radioactive material. Russia's rhetoric on the issue led to fears Moscow could be planning to initiate a false flag operation in Ukraine that would allow it to use its own dirty bomb.

The 80-page National Defence Strategy document described the conflict with China as “neither inevitable nor desirable”, and warned against Beijing's expanded influence in the Indo-Pacific, stressing the need to prevent it from exercising “dominance of key regions”.

As to the Middle East, Mr Austin said it is the Iranian threat that is the centre of concerns.

“Iran is moving ahead on its nuclear programme, supporting dangerous armed proxies and even exporting drones that Russia is using to terrorise Ukrainian civilians,” he said.

The document on Thursday is the first strategy released since the US ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan in August of last year.

The new review calls for increased research and development on cutting-edge technologies — including hypersonic weapons — as well as cyber, artificial intelligence and directed energy.

On Thursday, China called on the US to respect its interests and concerns before reopening military communications that were halted in August in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

China’s defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said the US must prove themselves to be consistent in several areas to allow military channels to return to normal.

“If the US side wants to improve military communication between China and the US, then it should match words with deeds, demonstrate its sincerity, and earnestly respect China’s interests and major concerns, and remove the negative factors that impede the development of ties between the two militaries,” Mr Tan told The South China Morning Post.

Mr Austin met his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Singapore earlier this month and said the two sides had agreed that open communications were important.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: October 27, 2022, 6:58 PM