United States president-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Pentagon, Gen (retired) Lloyd Austin, has said that Pakistan’s actions against anti-India terror groups such as LeT and JeM are “incomplete” and that China’s “increasingly aggressive actions” across the Indo-Pacific are a key concern for the country.
Speaking at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Austin also said that if he is confirmed for the post, he will work to continue elevating the defence partnership with India and work to “further operationalise India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status”.
Austin, 67, would be the first African American to run the department of defence but needs to be granted a waiver by both the House of Representatives and the Senate because the National Security Act requires the secretary of defence to wait seven years after active duty service before taking up the job.
He retired in 2016. The former four-star general has served as head of the US Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In his testimony to the Senate committee, Austin said on the global stage, Asia must be the focus of the US effort, and that he sees “China, in particular, as the pacing challenge for the Department”.
“Globally, I believe the most significant challenge I will face will be to ensure the Department of Defense’s continued efforts to prepare and strengthen the US military for a dynamic, future security landscape driven by accelerating competitions with China and with Russia – with China as our pacing threat in most areas – while still ensuring our ability to deter today’s range of threats,” he said in written replies to advance policy questions from the committee.
He said he assessed the “rapid development and operational focus” of China and the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, including its ability to conduct information, cyber and space operations, “constitutes a significant and long-term security threat to the United States and to our allies and partners”.
China’s “increasingly aggressive actions” in the Indo-Pacific too are concerning and the US needs a “more resilient and distributed force posture in the Indo-Pacific in response to China’s counter-intervention capabilities and approaches”, he said.
Asked if there had been any change in Pakistan’s cooperation with the US after American security aid was cut off in 2018, Austin replied: “I understand Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, although this progress is incomplete.”
“Many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack.”
Austin said Pakistan will continue to play an “important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan” and the US also needs to work with the country to defeat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province and enhance regional stability.
He added that he intended to “press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organizations”. Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will “provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues”, he said.
In response to a question on his priorities for India, Austin said his “overarching objective for our defense relationship with India would be to continue elevating the partnership”.
He added, “I would further operationalise India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status and continue to build upon existing strong defence cooperation to ensure the US and Indian militaries can collaborate to address shared interests. I would also seek to deepen and broaden our defence cooperation through the Quad security dialogue and other regional multilateral engagements.”