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Pacific Commanders Want More Money for Biden’s Asia Pivot

Military leaders want to “seize the initiative” against China.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. carriers conduct a joint operation with South Korea
The USS Nimitz (left), USS Ronald Reagan (second left), and USS Theodore Roosevelt (right) conduct operations with South Korea's destroyers during a joint naval drill off South Korea on Nov. 12, 2017. South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

The Pentagon’s top military command in the Asia-Pacific region is asking Congress to add nearly a billion dollars to its budget request to strengthen missile defenses, bolster American allies and partners in the region, and to look at more robust forward bases for U.S. troops to prepare for a possible military contingency in the region, according to internal budget documents obtained by Foreign Policy.

In total, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) is asking for almost $890 million to be added to the Biden administration’s $5.1 billion budget request for the Asia-focused command, including $231 million in funding for air and missile defenses at American military installations in Guam–within range of China’s improving rocket and missile forces–and $114 million to improve robust U.S. training ranges in Alaska and Hawaii in order to digitally link up with American forces conducting drills in the Western Pacific, which could someday extend to Washington’s allies in the region.

While the price tag for Indopacom’s request, known as an unfunded priority list, pales in comparison to what the military services put on their wish lists after the Biden administration’s budget drop, it would add back into the budget requests first made by outgoing Indopacom chief Adm. Philip Davidson, who spent his last days publicly pushing for a buildup of American assets west of the International Date Line to deal with a rapid Chinese military movement, such as against Taiwan. 

“The requests listed in the enclosure set the conditions to ‘seize the initiative’ by providing a pragmatic and viable approach that deters potential adversaries from unilaterally attempting to change the international rules based order, reassures allies and partners, and shapes the security environment,” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. John Aquilino wrote in a letter sent to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and other congressional leaders on Friday. “The investments are less than 1 percent of the DoD’s total obligating authority, and are critical for deterring China’s decision calculus.” 

The new U.S. administration used its first few months in office to signal that President Joe Biden would be the first American president to solidify a long-promised pivot to Asia, after former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both ended up getting mired in the Middle East. But the push for additions to Indopacom’s budget is the latest sign that military officials and Congress are hoping to see the commander-in-chief do more to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy. The fear of another promised Asia pivot losing momentum has been made clear, current and former officials and congressional aides said, by the Pentagon’s decision to shift the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan carrier strike group from Japan to Afghanistan to aid in the U.S. withdrawal, depriving American allies in China’s shadow of the lone carrier in the region. 

The near-billion dollar request from Indopacom is also a sign that Aquilino will continue the tradition at the Hawaii-based military command of pushing the Pentagon for more military resources and U.S. troops in the region if China makes a move against Taiwan, much to the delight of a bipartisan throng in Congress that has pushed Biden to give the command better radars, bases to disperse U.S. forces, and more security assistance for American partners. Davidson, Aquilino’s predecessor in the job, had warned Congress that China could push to capture the island by 2027, the centennial of the People’s Liberation Army. 

Congress designed the so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative, known as PDI, last year in an effort to add more U.S. firepower in the first island chain that borders China in the Western Pacific, from Japan to the Philippines, hardened and dispersed American naval and air posts, and the forward deployments of F-35 fighter jets on a permanent or rotational basis. It was designed to be roughly the Asia-Pacific’s equivalent of a fund arranged by the Obama administration to solidify European allies after Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Yet the notion of moving more U.S. forces forward has faced staunch opposition from the Pentagon’s analytical wing, which fears that American forces in the area would not survive a ranged missile attack from the PLA’s increasingly competent rocket and missile forces. 

The European Defense Initiative “built the enabling infrastructure, the support infrastructure, to get us to a much, much better place in terms of maintaining deterrence against the Russians,” a congressional aide told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about ongoing budget negotiations. “And that’s what PDI was supposed to do for the Western Pacific.”

The Indopacom request also asks for $88 million for new wargaming tools, $60 million to build defense radars in Hawaii that could be operational as soon as 2023, $68.2 million to build more forward U.S. bases in the region, and $130.6 million to build up allied U.S. militaries in the region, the last of which only amounted to $500,000 in Biden’s initial budget. That was to the chagrin of jilted congressional aides who saw efforts to build up U.S. allies and partners as a key focus of the newly designed Asia fund, and expressed frustration that the request did not hew to what lawmakers asked for.

In a statement provided to Foreign Policy on Monday in response to questions about the PDI, Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood insisted that the Department of Defense’s ongoing review of the U.S. military’s global footprint would include many of the requests that Davidson, the former Indopacom chief, made to Congress earlier this year. 

But the brewing crisis over Taiwan has put renewed urgency on bringing more military might to bear for Biden’s Asia pivot, aides and officials said, as the administration has ramped up unofficial contacts with the island. China has sent fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on a daily basis for over a year in an effort to exhaust opposing pilots and aircraft, and the United States is carefully watching Chinese military drills get more coordinated and complex, such as by bringing in more naval and rocket forces.

“This is, at some level, rehearsing tactical strikes in and around Taiwan,” a senior defense official said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch