Congress Seeks to Confront China With $6 Billion in New Defense Spending

If Beijing is the problem, let’s “put our money where our mouth is,” says a senior Republican.

Rep. Mac Thornberry
House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry in Washington on Feb. 26. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Amid rising U.S.-China tensions over the coronavirus pandemic, a bill introduced in Congress on Thursday would seek to create for the first time a dedicated defense fund to boost deterrence against China in the Pacific, allocating more than $6 billion for air and missile defense systems and new military construction in partner countries.

The proposal from the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry, reflects a growing bipartisan call for a more immediate and conventional solution to the threat from China by replicating Washington’s multiyear European Deterrence Initiative, another dedicated funding program. Since Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the initiative has consumed $22 billion to increase military training, infrastructure, and rotational deployments on NATO’s eastern flank.

“If it worked so well there, why don’t we do it in what we are calling our ‘priority theater,’” Thornberry, of Texas, said in an interview Wednesday. “We just haven’t, in my view, fully put our money where our mouth is.”

The concept of an Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative has support not only from Republican China hawks such as Sen. Josh Hawley and arch-conservatives such as the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, but also the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith. While the coronavirus pandemic response is expected to put pressure on defense spending this year, the initiative is likely to become law in some form.

Though the Trump and Obama administrations have emphasized a military focus on the Pacific, this fund would be the first of its kind for the region—and it comes amid deepening tensions between the rival superpowers over the spread of the novel coronavirus, beyond festering disputes on Taiwan, trade, cybertheft, and geopolitical influence. Tensions over the contested South China Sea, where China has built several islands to house military equipment, saw a flash point this month when the U.S. State Department condemned China for allegedly ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat near the islands. (Beijing says the fishing boat did the ramming.)

Absent such a dedicated defense fund, the Trump administration’s strategy has emphasized Russia and China but taken a more diffuse approach to spending. The Pentagon has continued Middle East deployments amid Iran tensions and made marquee investments to counter Beijing in such technologies as hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence, which are still more than a decade away.

In recent weeks, tensions that were already high over U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China have escalated over the pandemic. Officials from the two countries have traded jabs over COVID-19, with the White House accusing Beijing of withholding information about how badly China was struck by the virus. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have at times controversially called it the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus,” while Chinese officials have denied the virus originated in China even as most evidence indicates that it did, possibly even emerging from a poorly regulated research lab in Wuhan.

Thornberry’s bill would overlap with recommendations from a landmark report to Congress from Indo-Pacific Command, which called for $20.1 billion in added spending between 2021 and 2026. After Congress authorized a special Indo-Pacific account two years ago and the Pentagon didn’t fund it, frustrated lawmakers used the annual defense policy law to require the military’s regional war-fighting command, Indopacom, report on what military assets were missing in the struggle to deter China in the Pacific.

Pointedly, the report circumvents the Pentagon’s top leaders, though observers expect Defense Secretary Mark Esper to respond eventually with his own set of recommendations to Capitol Hill for 2022 and beyond.

Using the new Indopacom report as a jumping-off point, Thornberry’s bill would authorize big-ticket items such as a land-based integrated air and missile defense system on Guam to defend it as a power-projection hub, restart a postponed homeland defense radar in Hawaii, and fund new long-range precision missiles throughout the region. (All of the above would still have to be reconciled within the House and Senate, and included in spending legislation, to become reality.)

Less flashy, Indopacom is seeking billions of dollars for new facilities for joint training and to preposition munitions, fuel, and maintenance equipment in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Pacific island countries such as Palau and the Northern Marianas. During a hypothetical fight with China, having dispersed assets—far from big U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea—is meant to both protect U.S. forces and compel Chinese forces to defend themselves in multiple places.

“It is not strategically prudent, nor operationally viable to physically concentrate on large, close-in bases that are highly vulnerable to a potential adversary’s strike capability,” Indopacom’s commander, Adm. Philip Davidson, wrote in his report. “Distributed operations increase mobility and agility to ensure our ability to ‘Fight and Win.’”

Under the multiyear Indopacom proposal, $5.8 billion would be for offensive missiles and multiple radars, including a space-based radar; another $5.8 billion would be used to distribute forces around the region; and $5.1 billion would be for “logistics and security enablers”—a broad array that includes counterpropaganda operations, fuel storage, battle-damage repair facilities, as well as military aid for forces in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

“Every chairman of the Joint Chiefs says our greatest advantage is our partnerships, and we do nurture them,” Thornberry said. “We have exercises and so forth, but taking the template that has worked so well in Europe, putting some money toward enhancing [Pacific] infrastructure, those partnerships, and those exercises, I think that’s a step up, and we need to do that.”

Esper has warned that Beijing’s expanding military threatens U.S. influence, and he’s called China his “No. 1 priority,” traveling to Asia last August to shore up U.S. alliances. But critics charge the Defense Department’s budget process is better organized to address the procurement priorities of the armed services than regional war-fighting priorities—except when it comes to Europe and the European Deterrence Initiative.

“If you tried to ask the department right now what’s going on in the Indo-Pacific in the FY21 budget, let alone what’s been happening in the region over many budgets, it has no way of doing it,” said one congressional staffer. “We kind of know ‘no, we’re not.’ The force posture in the region hasn’t changed much.”

A Democratic spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that the chairman, Smith, has been working on the issue since last fall and plans to include some variation of the fund in his draft of the massive annual defense policy bill, due out next month. Smith faced a Republican revolt against the last defense policy bill and has been reaching across the aisle for months to avoid a repeat.

The Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative will “responsibly fund activities that are fully supported by DoD, avoid budgetary gimmicks, and require DoD to provide additional information to ensure DoD is strategically aligning resources toward the challenges and objectives in the Indo-Pacific,” the spokesperson said. “Chairman Smith is proud of our Committee’s long-standing tradition of meaningful bipartisanship, and the IPRI is an example of this tradition.”

Joe Gould reports on Congress and national defense from Washington

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