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China Remains Top Threat in New US National Defense Strategy

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Oct. 27, 2022.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Oct. 27, 2022.

China remains the top challenge to U.S. national security interests, while Russia remains an "acute" threat as it continues its brutal war in Ukraine, according to the Pentagon's newly released National Defense Strategy.

"The [People's Republic of China] is the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, a power to do so," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.

A senior defense official, speaking to reporters about the new defense strategy on the condition of anonymity, said China continues to gain more "capability to systematically challenge the United States across the board: militarily, economically, technologically, diplomatically."

The "China challenge," according to Austin, has led to boosting defense capabilities across all warfighting domains, especially space and cyberspace, to make it clear to any potential adversary that "the cost of aggression against the United States or our allies and partners far outweighs any conceivable gains."

The unclassified strategy report comes as both China and Russia have escalated aggressions against their neighbors. China repeatedly threatens to control Taiwan, by force if necessary, and Russia invaded Ukraine in February and continues to attack Ukrainian towns and cities with missiles and even Iranian-made kamikaze drones.

A classified version of the report was released to Congress earlier this year.

Another senior defense official, also speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity Thursday, said nuclear weapons would continue to be the "bedrock" of U.S. military deterrence.

According to the official, the new defense strategy reflects that the U.S. is now facing two major nuclear-armed competitors in Russia and China.

"Other non-nuclear capabilities have the potential to complement but cannot replace nuclear deterrence in some circumstances," the official said.

Other major threats

Russia's aggression against Ukraine poses "an immediate and sharp threat," Austin said, causing the United States to increase its military presence in Europe from about 80,000 troops to more than 100,000.

But unlike China, Austin told reporters, "Russia can't systemically challenge the United States over the long term."

The senior official added that "Russia is absolutely deterred from attacking NATO," as the United States has made clear that it will defend every inch of NATO territory.

But the official raised concern that Russia's failures on the Ukrainian battlefield could cause it to rely more on its nuclear forces in the future.

Other threats mentioned in the 2022 National Defense Strategy include North Korea, Iran and global violent extremists.

Iran remains a destabilizing presence in the Middle East and the greatest state sponsor of terrorism, all while continuing to develop nuclear capabilities that would enable Tehran to produce a nuclear weapon. However, according to the report, "Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon" and the U.S. "currently believe[s] it is not pursuing one."

North Korea also continues to expand its nuclear and missile capabilities to threaten U.S. forces and American allies in the region.

The 2022 strategy is largely a continuation of the 2018 National Defense Strategy under then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, which made a fundamental shift away from primarily countering extremists to focusing first on a potential war with a near-peer competitor.

Last year the U.S. ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan. The U.S. still has a small number of troops in Somalia, Iraq and Syria but has largely shifted away from major counterterrorism operations.

The new strategy calls for more advancements in technologies from hypersonic weapons to artificial intelligence. Austin added that the fiscal 2023 budget includes more than $130 billion for research and development, the largest such research budget in the department's history.