The Pentagon is considering establishing a permanent naval task force in the Pacific region as a counter to China’s growing military might, according to two people familiar with internal discussions.
The plan would also involve creating a named military operation for the Pacific that would enable the defense secretary to allocate additional dollars and resources to the China problem, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss pre-decisional plans.The two initiatives, which are not yet finalized, would add muscle to President Joe Biden’s tough talk on China and send a signal that the new U.S. administration is serious about cracking down on Beijing’s military buildup and aggressive behavior in the Pacific region.
The news comes as NATO leaders are increasingly aligning themselves with Washington’s confrontational stance on Beijing. Four years after former President Donald Trump made countering China a top foreign policy priority, NATO allies this week declared Beijing a security challenge and said the Chinese are working to undermine global order.
The discussions grew out of work by the Pentagon’s China Task Force, which Biden commissioned in March to examine the department’s China-related policies and processes. The group, led by Ely Ratner, the nominee to serve as the Pentagon’s top Indo-Pacific policy official, recently completed its work and presented recommendations to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
A defense official, responding to a request for comment, stressed that none of the plans stemming from the China task force are finalized.
“We are looking at a number of proposals in the Indo-Pacific and across the Department, to better synchronize and coordinate our activities,” said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss pre-decisional plans. “However, as the Secretary said, now is the time to get to work, there are many details and specifics still to be finalized.”
While the initiatives would not be a silver bullet to solve the China problem, the efforts are an encouraging sign that the Pentagon is committed to moving resources away from the Middle East and elevating the needs of the Pacific, said Elbridge Colby, a former Trump Pentagon official who is now a principal at The Marathon Initiative.“The task force and the named operation suggest to me that they are going to elevate the oomph and the power of the Western Pacific oriented force,” Colby said, noting that if the task force “is focused on the Western Pacific, whether it’s focused on China explicitly or implicitly, it’s got bureaucratic oomph to say ‘hey, no [Central Command], just because you have a knee-jerk reaction to something happening you can’t steal our assets.”
The naval task force would be modeled on a construct NATO launched in Europe leading up to and during the Cold War, the Standing Naval Forces Atlantic, the people familiar with the discussions told POLITICO. The squadron was an immediate reaction force that could rapidly respond to a crisis but spent most of its time steaming around the region, participating in scheduled exercises and making goodwill port calls. Six to 10 ships from multiple NATO nations — destroyers, frigates and auxiliaries — were typically attached to the force for up to six months.
The European task force allowed those nations to “maximize their influence at sea and to specialize their investments simultaneously,” said Jerry Hendrix, an analyst for consulting firm Telemus Group and the author of "To Provide and Maintain a Navy". He noted that an effective Pacific task force would also include European allies such as Britain and France, who are increasing their Pacific naval presence, as well as Japan and Australia.
The proposed initiative would be a “deterrent because it demonstrates a unity of effort in countering Chinese excessive threats to the concept of a free sea and free trade with their large territorial sea claims,” Hendrix said.
It’s not yet clear whether the task force would involve only U.S. ships, or include other nations’ militaries as well, the people said.
Officials working on China policy at the Pentagon are also considering establishing a named military operation for the Pacific, which would create a formal planning process for the defense secretary and provide additional budget authority and resources for the effort, the people said.
The Pentagon has not yet briefed Capitol Hill on the plans, one of the people said.
Based on the work of Ratner’s task force, Austin issued a directive last week initiating several department-wide efforts to better address the security challenges posed by China as the United States’ “number one pacing challenge.” But officials declined to provide any details, saying that many of the initiatives are classified.