New ‘play book’ for China ; Tech and allies imp: Carter

IDD Insight

Explaining the future focus of the US in the Indo-Pacific, former US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says allies and friends are needed to counter China as he went on to speak about a ‘new cold war’ that has a new ‘play book’ to include both offence and defence. He listed technology as a key factor.

Carter, who was Defense Secretary during the Barack Obama administration, is now Director of the Belfer centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.

The US Chamber of Commerce hosted a web-session with Carter on April 8. Washington Post Foreign Affairs columnist David Ignatius moderated it.  Carter, among several subjects, spoke on national security and American competitiveness in advanced technologies, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the US engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

Answering a specific question posed by Vivek Lall Chief Executive General Atomics Global Corporation on lack of US bases in the western pacific and how to maintain deterrence, Carter said “We do need to span the distances…. One of thing that spans distances are friends and allies… We will not be able to operate against China the way we used to”.

A screen grab of Vivek Lall Chief Executive General Atomics Global Corporation

There are two ways of doing it, one is by having longer legged aircraft for ISR (Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Carter referred to the drones made by General Atomics and listed B-21 bomber as the other option.

Many in the US have now belatedly come to the view that the China is not turning out the way as we thought so in 90s’, said Carter adding “The big thing is friends and allies are needed as we maintain the US as a palpable pacific power”.

Lall had asked “Given the limited US basing options and large distances of the western pacific how can the US create a significant deterrence including the ISR collection in the western pacific? ”

New play book for new cold war

Carter spoke about the ‘new play book’ terming what he said was the new ‘cold war’ which had offence and defence. “You cannot defend your way through.  Your strategy should not only be to retard China’s advance, we have to good ourselves”. There was a need to spend more. Put your finger on two fields where you just cannot play defensive, you got to play offence. It is about running faster than the other guy instead of just trying to slow the other guy down.

He pointed out to Semi conductors and Artificial intelligence. They are key technologies where we have historic lead which is important for economic and national security.

He had been asked by an attendee if the US defense budget needs to grow and how important is was to invest in technological leadership in semi conductor business to maintain US role as world leader.

India US alliance is destiny

The moderator David Ignatius questioned on India, saying it has been  a wonderful friend and increasingly an ally but it has a  ‘autocratic’ economic policy and works hard to protect its own industry and is difficult for US officials.

India has complicated longstanding relationship with Russia and complicated and dangerous relationship with china, the moderator went on asking “Do you feel we can have a deepening partnership with India that extends powerfully to military and security sphere,” The moderator asked.

Carter, who during his tenure as Defense Secretary had signed important agreements with India on logistics sharing, said US and India have too much in common  in interests, we are two large democracies who share values.

He had a word for American policy makers saying when look back in history,  we look at the non-aligned tradition of India which goes deeply and that says be ready to take care of yourself and don’t be dependent on any country. It is changing but is still there.

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh (right) and US Defence Secretary, General . Lloyd Austin after bilateral talks in New Delhi on March 20, 2021.

Indian links to Russia are due to large part of the military equipment being Russian origin and India cannot throw that out hence have to keep working with Russians, it is part of history.

The India US relationship should go steadily “that is destiny, but at its own pace”, Carter said adding that even in office he was realistic to realise where India was coming from.

The Europe question

On Europe-US  there was question as how Europe’s ‘uneven approach to china’, complicates it. Europe looks to position itself relative to China how does that complicate with NATO partners and Chinese in effect taking advantage of us by playing US against allies

Carter accepted saying yes that is a Chinese tactic. Most countries don’t want to choose between US and China. Countries are happy to choose values and systems, but if we force them into that mentality ( of choosing between the US and China)  that is playing the Chinese hand and not the US hand.  

Technology is key

Replying to a similar question  if European countries and countries around the world be asked to either pick or reject the telecom giant ‘Huawei’. Carter said “We don’t want to start a Soviet-style cold war where everyone stops trading with China.  But where the technological relationship is disadvantageous, ultimately its their decision ( of each country)”.

5 G infra is a good vehicle to position to spy or sabotage critical infrastructure of ours. You have to go into Huawei and look at it piece parts, should we sell micro-chips should we buy handsets from them, Carter explained adding  “it was a shame that we don’t have our own ‘hauwei’.   

Xi Jinping says he wants to autonomous in many areas of technology. There are going to areas where that is going to happen. It should not happen across the economic board that will be bad, but it will happen, Carter argued.

“China excludes US companies  and products. It picks one company  and gives advantage to other one. It  routinely does things which is not our way of doing business. We have to protect our economic life”

China needs to be told Taiwan cannot be taken by force

Carter said the US has been able to persuade Chinese leaders including Xi that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could ruin everything for them.

“A Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force, I believe would be very harzardous for them”, said Carter . Also we in the US cannot do it the old way ( the possible reference was to the 1972 meeting between US President Richard Nixon told Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai which decided the fate of Taiwan).  China is not what it used to be, you would not do it the old way, said Carter

A Joint exercise led by the US Navy. File pic for representative purposes

“We need to make sure that China knows that we will stand up. We can do things, I think we can play our hand well”, Carter said.He was answering a question if Xi feels that there has to be actual integration of Taiwan with China. There is concern about the ability of US being able to deter that and do  we have the military power to use that in case of Taiwan .

Need to have ability to operate out of Afghanistan

Making an important point on Afghanistan, Carter said we have to ensure that transition is peaceful and we can operate from there. This is different from having a combat presence.

“We do want a government that is friendly to the US. I suppose Biden is also aiming at that we can operate from there but not have combat presence”. He said 

May 1 is the deadline of withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Carter was asked that  President Biden said we may miss it.

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