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US’ new China task force will identify top priorities, its chief says – and tech is ‘huge’

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The new task force will identify Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s priorities in dealing with China. Photo: Reuters

The US defence department has revealed more details about its new task force to evaluate its strategy on China, with technology among its priorities as the two countries’ rivalry looks set to continue under Joe Biden, the new American president.

Ely Ratner, special assistant to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and leader of the task force, said on Thursday that the group would examine all activities in the Pentagon related to what Austin has called America’s “pacing challenge” to ensure efforts were prioritised and coordinated.

“The goal of the task force is … not to ‘boil the ocean’,” said Ratner, a long-time Asia expert who was deputy national security adviser to Biden when he was vice-president during the Obama administration.

“What we’re going to do here is try to identify the most important challenges and opportunities for the secretary, try to identify what should serve as his and his team’s top priorities on China, whether those be issues that need secretary-level decisions or guidance, issues that need greater prioritisation, attention and resources, or issues that need either strength and/or new processes to move them forward to address them.”

Biden said this week during his first visit to the Pentagon as president that a task force was to be established to help “chart a strong path forward on China-related matters”.

Tensions between China and the US have shown no immediate signs of abating. This week, in their long-anticipated first telephone conversation, Biden pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping on trade, human rights and the Indo-Pacific region, while Xi pushed back by describing TaiwanHong Kong and Xinjiang as China’s “internal affairs”, which observers felt showed the depth of the differences between their countries.

The White House’s statement after the call, held on Wednesday night in Washington and Thursday morning in Beijing, said Biden was “committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements [with China] when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies”.

US state department spokesman Ned Price said Washington would coordinate closely with allies and such engagements would occur when “it is consistent with our interests”.

“But we certainly understand and have some of the same profound concerns with China’s predatory behaviour when it comes to technology,” Price said on Thursday.

According to Ratner, the task force will seek to identify the most important challenges and opportunities, and rank the priorities to ensure there are enough resources and attention devoted to them, before delivering recommendations in June. It will comprise 15 staff, including members from the defence secretary’s office, the military and the intelligence community, Ratner said.

Technology competition is expected to be high on its agenda. 

The Pentagon has blacklisted 44 Chinese companies because of their ties with the Chinese military, including tech giants Huawei Technologies Co. and Xiaomi, and state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

Ratner said the task force would “be going after” the technology issues. “What is clear is that this issue of technology competition is of increasing importance in the US-China relationship,” he said. “It‘s a huge priority for the administration.

“Many of the issues related to technology have to do with defence and security issues, and we have to make sure [the defence department] is adequately organised to be able to answer the kind of questions that the inter-agency is asking.”