To listen to the defense hawks in Congress these days is to hear a lot about China. Rep. Mike Rogers, the leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, mentioned China or its communist leadership some eight times in the first 15 sentences of his statement at a June hearing with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A recent op-ed from two hawkish members of Congress warns of “chaos,” “violence and unrest” from China and other malign actors if the Biden administration doesn’t raise the defense budget more. And even President Biden himself spent a good chunk of precious time in his joint address to Congress talking about threats from China.
Of course, the Chinese Communist Party and its military do present challenges and risks to American (and global) economic and security interests. Whether it’s China’s human rights abuses to the Uyghur population, its aggression toward free peoples in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or its threat to the unabated flow of goods and people in the South China Sea, China is certainly adversarial to a number of American priorities. That may explain why lawmakers are obsessed with deterring China these days, though one way not to deter our most significant security adversary is by wasting money on flawed weapons systems.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s first request for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, newly created by Congress, is chock full of wasteful legacy spending that may not actually deter China.
One in every five dollars in the PDI request, a total around $1 billion, goes to the poster-child for DoD waste and mismanagement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft. As noted in a previous Responsible Statecraft piece, the F-35 suffers from numerous long-running and ongoing flaws including:
— Supply chain concerns such as spare parts delivery.
— Maintenance issues such as a lack of support equipment.
— A malfunctioning and ineffective logistics software system that the military is currently in the process of completely replacing.
— Underperforming engines.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s watchdog for the sprawling executive branch, wrote in a recent report that the F-35’s engine problems alone will be enough to ground 43 percent of the F-35 fleet in the coming years. A jet that costs more than any other weapons system in the military and cannot fly nearly half the time is a major and unanswered problem for those who want to deter Chinese military aggression, and history shows that it is unlikely that throwing an additional $1 billion at the F-35’s numerous problems will fix this “Ferrari” of a jet.
What’s also notable in the president’s PDI request is what the administration chooses not to spend deterrence dollars on. Only $500,000 — no missing zeros there, just $500,000 of the $5.1 billion PDI request, or less than one one-hundredths of one percent — goes to the “Strengthening Alliances and Partnerships” in the region. Given the nation’s strategic and economic allies have borne and will continue to bear the brunt of China’s foreign aggression, one would think the Biden administration would want to devote more than 0.01 percent of its Pacific Deterrence Initiative request to building and improving strong economic and security partnerships that deter China from acting against the United States and it allies.
Even a former aide for a defense hawk in Congress who helped create PDI has criticized the Biden administration’s improper focus in its PDI request. Dustin Walker recently wrote that “[j]ust $23 million — less than 1 percent — of the PDI request is for ‘force design and posture,’ arguably the initiative’s most important line of effort.”
What’s clear is that the Biden administration PDI request is more about procurement than it is about strengthening alliances that, together, could more effectively deter Chinese military aggression. The PDI request could be significantly smaller — or, as some experts have argued, PDI could not exist at all. There are plenty of other tools at America’s disposal to counter China, and many should not cost taxpayers a dime.
Such tools should include free trade agreements. Back in 2018, several taxpayer and free-market advocates got together to write a letter to then-President Trump, urging him to negotiate an “improved” Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement rather than keeping the United States out of TPP as both Trump (and his 2016 presidential election opponent, Hillary Clinton) said they would do.
The signatories noted that “TPP can also be an important tool to counter China’s growing influence in the region and encourage market-oriented reforms.” Unfortunately, the United States is still on the outside looking in atTPP, even though its outsize influence could make TPP a significant economic counterweight to the governmental and military ambitions of China in the region.
Another is our ongoing work with robust international security partnerships that seek to promote democracy and counter authoritarianism around the world. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s June 2021 statement on the “systemic challenges” and “assertive behaviour” of China were historic in their own right, for shifting an alliance traditionally countering Russia’s malign influence to one countering Russia and China.
NATO leaders will have to guard against stretching themselves too thin, and must be wary of resorting to military action when diplomacy and constraint should govern this moment, but NATO’s statements may be noteworthy in and of themselves for those fighting to keep (or grow) their freedoms in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere under China’s sphere of influence.
In short, the Biden PDI request as it currently stands is more about procurement than it is about the Pacific, and that should be deeply concerning for budget watchdogs and foreign policy realists alike. Congress would do right to scrap the Biden PDI request, and our allies in the Pacific may be better off if U.S. lawmakers focus their attention on many of the soft power tools at their disposal instead.