WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - DECEMBER 09: U.S. Army (retired) General Lloyd Austin speaks after being formally nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre on December 09, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. The only African-American to have headed U.S. Central Command, Lloyd Austin, 67, is a four-star general who was in charge of American forces in Iraq from 2010 to late 2011. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP

US President-elect Joseph Biden’s surprise appointment of retired Army General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for secretary of defense is the latest strong signal that his incoming administration will emphasize strategic coalition-building against China in the South China Sea and other hotspot Indo-Pacific theaters.  

Biden’s preference for Austin over other tipped candidates reflects not only their strong personal rapport, but also shared strategic instincts. Austin has publicly emphasized the importance of so-called “strategic patience”, putting him in a more dovish camp than known China hawks who were also considered for the post.

Biden and Austin’s strong working relations were on full display in the early 2010s when the Barack Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president, and the Pentagon weighed strategic options in the Middle East, including the 2011 troop withdrawal from Iraq.

By picking what some see as a more cautious and temperate candidate than others on his shortlist, Biden is likely signaling not just his administration’s Asian but also global military posture, especially vis-à-vis key rivals like China.

Earlier, former Pentagon policy chief and key foreign policy adviser in the Obama administration, Michele Flournoy, was seen as the frontrunner to become Biden’s secretary of defense.

Viewed as a so-called “liberal hawk” who has staunchly advocated for a more aggressive US military strategy across Asia and the Middle East, Flournoy was known for her significant policy differences in the past with then-vice president Biden, who has consistently favored a more calibrated deployment of American military might.

Then-US Under Secretary of Defence Michelle Flournoy looks on during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Ma Xiaotian at the Bayi Building in Beijing on December 7, 2011. Photo: AFP/Andy Wong

In an article in Foreign Affairs in June, Flournoy wrote that “if the US military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.”

Apart from likely riling Beijing, her appointment would have also been highly symbolic as America’s first female defense secretary. But her hawkish stance and entanglements within the defense industry, including senior positions at Booz Allen Hamilton and her consulting firm WestExec Advisors, reportedly provoked a concerted pushback by more progressive elements of the Democratic Party.

The likely incoming Pentagon chief is yet another recently-retired general and former Middle East hand to oversee America’s military behemoth.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis was another prominent example, with his appointment requiring a special waiver from the US Senate in light of restrictions on the appointment of recently-retired military officers to top civilian positions.

Austin’s post-retirement entanglements have also come under early scrutiny, including his position among the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, one of the largest US defense contractors with mega-arms deals with several Middle Eastern countries.

Nonetheless, Biden’s pick enjoys not only support among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and African-American bloc within Biden’s party, a key constituency for the president-elect, but has also faced less criticism from the progressive forces, who have acknowledged the former general’s long record of “strategic patience.”

During his four-decades-long service in the US military, Austin served as the vice chief of staff of the Army, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Afghanistan and commander of the US Central Command before his retirement in the final year of the Obama administration as a four-star general.

Then-Commander of the US Central Command General Lloyd Austin III at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Photo: Paul J Richards

A veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Austin is known for his analytic acumen and calibrated approach to defense strategy.

As the CENCOM commander, he oversaw America’s military posture and myriad operations across the tempestuous region, crucially serving as the chief architect of a broadly successful multilateral strategy to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters.

He has credited the coalition forces’ ability “to adjust and respond so rapidly and effectively to the threats” posed by transnational terrorist groups such as IS due to “over 40 years of continuous investments in building partner capacity and foreign assistance programs.”

Cognizant of “times of geostrategic ambiguity and change, defense budget stringency, and force reductions,” Austin has emphasized the importance of building and maintaining trust as “the essential ingredient to forming, norming, and holding together coalitions.”

A staunch advocate for strong alliances and partnerships, the incoming Pentagon chief apparently shares Biden’s telegraphed commitment to restore American leadership in the liberal international order.

“In today’s world of compound security threats and gray zone conflicts, alliances and coalitions are the new centers of gravity,” Austin said in a 2018 interview, just when the Trump administration was adopting an avowedly unilateralist policy.

“They are the sources of power and legitimacy supporting the order of the system as well as the reputational and instrumental power of the United States as the leader. As such, alliances, coalitions, and regional partnerships must be invested in accordingly,” he added.

Signaling a prioritization of military-to-military diplomacy, Austin has argued that “Coalition management has to be at the core of future [battles].”

Core to his military philosophy is a profound appreciation of the complexity of threats and challenges confronting the US in the 21st century, a stark contrast with the position of both liberal hawks as well as the Trump administration.

While this could mean a dialing down of America’s military tensions with rivals such as China, it also signals the Biden administration’s efforts to assemble a more robust and enduring coalition to constrain what are viewed by Washington as Beijing’s worst instincts.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

“The kinds of compound wars we face today…demand extreme strategic patience,” he has argued, emphasizing the importance of the Pentagon’s global military presence, because “[p]resence buys you influence.”

Austin’s appointment announcement coincided with the latest high-level US official’s visit to Southeast Asia in recent weeks, underscoring the strategic region’s growing importance in America’s rising rivalry with China.

The Pentagon’s outgoing chief and Donald Trump loyalist, Christopher Miller, wrapped up this week his shuttle diplomacy in the Philippines and Indonesia.

During his visit to Manila on Tuesday, the acting US secretary of defense announced the transfer of $29 million in US military hardware, including snipers and anti-bomb gears, for Philippine forces. A day earlier, Miller floated the prospect of joint US-Australia-Indonesia military drills with Jakarta.

That followed closely on outgoing US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s regional tour, which was highlighted by the transfer of more than $18 million of military assistance, including smart bombs, advanced missiles and a ScanEagle aerial drone to Philippine forces.

“In meetings with Philippine counterparts, Acting Secretary Miller underscored the importance of the US-Philippine alliance to national and regional security, and discussed opportunities for greater bilateral security cooperation to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the US Embassy in Manila said in a statement.

It was yet the latest attempt by the Trump administration to shape the contours of its successor’s Asia policy. But Biden’s pick of Austin shows he is determined to forge a new strategic direction, one that will shore up regional alliances and partnerships vis-a-vis China in a likely less confrontational and more patient way.