The Defense Department’s point man on China, Ely Ratner, took the stage in the Pentagon briefing room recently to describe a nebulous mission: a four-month “sprint” to assess where the department stands on China. But some are warning the destination, in terms of policy prescriptions, will merely lead him back to the starting line.
China had already been at the forefront of the Trump administration’s defense policy. Previous Defense Secretary Mark Esper frequently warned of Chinese aggression and growing military might and used regular visits with Indo-Pacific allies and burgeoning partners to highlight what was being done. President Barack Obama, too, famously declared a “pivot” toward Asia in 2012 that began a slow DOD bureaucratic shift away from the Middle East. At the time, Ratner served as deputy to the White House national security adviser.
Ratner, as a member of a DOD-focused team during President Biden’s post-election transition period and Biden’s lead East Asia adviser during the campaign, participated in 30 DOD transition meetings where China or the Indo-Pacific were discussed, DOD confirmed.
So, why then does Ratner need to lead a DOD deep dive on where the Biden team stands on China defense policy?
A source close to transition negotiations told the Washington Examiner that spending four months figuring out what the department is already doing on China is a facade.
“This was sort of like a little scheme to get Ely in the building on day one,” the source said. “They’re making more of this than I think they need to.”
With the move, sources see Biden taking a play out of the Trump playbook that was loathed by Democrats by installing one of his own at the Pentagon without the Senate’s approval.
“What’s happening is Ely Ratner is going to be the assistant secretary,” the source said of the Biden nomination for Ratner to serve as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs.
“They wanted him in the building fast, and they needed to give him something that looks like it wouldn’t conflict with what he’s going to be doing when he is confirmed,” the source added.
Not starting from scratch
For his part, Ratner said the China policy review is meant to synchronize and coordinate all the activities and make sure the department has “our priorities straight.”
“There’s been a proliferation of activities and policies and programs,” Ratner told the Washington Examiner in a gaggle the day after the initiative was announced by Biden during his first Pentagon visit as president.
Asked if the effort is a continuation of the Trump administration’s China policy or a complete overhaul, Ratner demurred.
“We’re going to be building upon existing efforts,” he said. “What we’re talking about here is, ‘How is the Department of Defense responding to the China challenge?’”
In his brief, and at times awkward, Pentagon briefing room appearance, Ratner declined to discuss or list specific priority areas for the task force’s mission. For instance, he would not discuss required funding to counter China, future deployments, or technology competition.
“I don’t have a specific set in mind right now, and it may end up being a disparate set of issues,” he said. “It’ll be a range of different types of issues, actually.”
A DOD fact sheet released the day of Biden’s Feb. 10 Pentagon visit said the new task force would consist of 15 civilian and uniformed officials and investigate topics including strategy, technology, force posture, intelligence, U.S. alliances, and partnerships and defense relations with China.
Biden celebrated the task force as a means of charting the way forward on China.
“That’s how we’ll meet the China challenge and ensure the American people win the competition of the future,” the president said in his Pentagon remarks.
The Biden transition team held 30 meetings with DOD officials related to China and the Indo-Pacific. Biden, too, had a clear policy agenda related to China, articulated through ART lead and recently confirmed Deputy Defense Secretary Kath Hicks.
“The vast majority of folks that we worked with in the Pentagon were incredibly helpful, knowledgeable, forthcoming,” Hicks said at her Feb. 2 Congressional confirmation hearing. “The challenges we faced were really around a handful of folks that made things difficult.”
When Pentagon spokesman John Kirby could not respond to a Washington Examiner question to elaborate on the need for the China Task Force or if it was related to a transition breakdown, a spokesman was tasked with finding out more.
The DOD spokesman told the Washington Examiner that transition meeting topics included policy, strategy, alliances, interagency efforts, dialogues, treaties, innovation, acquisition and budget priorities, and supply chain.
“The new administration is not starting from scratch,” that spokesman, granted anonymity to be candid, said.
“The goal of the task force is to provide an internal baseline assessment of DOD policies, programs, and processes on China-related matters and provide the Secretary of Defense recommendations on key priorities and decision points to meet the China challenge,” the spokesman added.
DOD career civilian and military personnel with expertise in China remain in place after working under the Trump administration, DOD confirmed.
These include the acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, the chairman and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
The source familiar with the Biden transition team’s preparation agreed with the Pentagon officials’ contention that there was no point of failure on transition policy related to China.
“I don’t get the sense that there was a real bad handoff,” he said. “I’ve talked to somebody on the Trump side that was involved in the defense handoff at the senior level, on Asia stuff, and he said he thought it was totally fine.”
In the final year of President Donald Trump’s term, senior defense officials were regularly placed in acting or “performing the duties of” positions to circumvent the Senate confirmation process.
The most prominent such official was retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, whose July 30 confirmation hearing for undersecretary for defense policy was abruptly canceled hours before its scheduled start time when it became apparent his nomination lacked the votes for approval.
Tata had previously posted tweets in 2018 that were critical of Islam and claimed that Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear agreement showed that Islam had been elevated above U.S. national interests.
Late the night before the one-star general’s hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe sought Trump’s blessing to cancel the hearing.
Trump pushed Tata through the Pentagon doors anyway in an identical position, but with the preface, he was “performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for policy.”
“Ely will have no problem getting through his congressional hearing,” the source said. “He’s hawkish, he’s known to a lot of the Republicans, and they tend to like him, so that’s not going to be a problem. But I think, typically, you don’t usually put officials into jobs where they’re handling the same portfolio before they’re confirmed.”
No major overhaul?
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a 41-year army veteran, is not a China expert.
The still-new defense secretary spent much of his career in the Middle East and served as commander of U.S. Central Command, managing the drawdown of 135,000 troops from Iraq.
Yet, Austin has labored to underscore China as the chief threat for the department.
“We here at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense view China as our primary pacing challenge,” Austin said at his first press conference Friday.
The source opined that getting tabs on all the China players for a May or June briefing to top officials may have some value.
“It’s a worthwhile thing to do,” he said. “I don’t think you should expect this to have, like, some brand new, amazing insights that no one’s ever talked about before.”
The source believes no China policy will “fundamentally change.”
“For the most part, I think they believe the DOD was on a positive course,” he said. “Basically, to start getting the team of smart people together that could work on China. So I, I think that’s probably more important than the substance of whatever they’re going to do.”
Promising no public report and revealing few details, Ratner is likely at work doing what he will be doing once confirmed by the Senate.
“DOD has become increasingly focused on the China challenge,” he explained in his press gaggle. “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.”