Momentum Builds for Military Funds to Blunt China’s Pacific Ambitions

May 6, 2020 Updated: May 6, 2020

Momentum is building in Congress to funnel more money into the Pacific Command theater in order to blunt China’s ambitions for regional military dominance.

A similar scheme, worth around $3 billion to $4 billion per year, took place in Europe after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, when politicians were keen to send a message to President Vladamir Putin and his “little green men.”

Since then, Russia has been replaced by China as the United States’ No. 1 official military adversary.

“The current U.S. National Defense Strategy prioritizes the U.S. abilities to counter Chinese aggression, in particular throughout the Indo-Pacific,” Timothy Walton, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times.

“However, there have been a number of questions raised as to how much the Department of Defense is reprioritizing its funding to focus on operations in the Indo-Pacific.

“In contrast, over the past number of years, there have been special initiatives established to fund deterrence and reassurance activities in the European command theater of operations while a similar initiative hasn’t been established in the Pacific. ”

The idea of a Pacific deterrence initiative has been floated for two or three years in Congress but gained little momentum until recently.

“Right now you have the support of both the ranking member and the chairman on the House side,” Frederico Bartels, a senior policy analyst in Defense Budgeting at The Heritage Foundation, told The Epoch Times in reference to the Armed Services Committee. “On the Senate side, you have some internal war games to see what would be in the Indo-Pacom deterrence initiative that they can support.”

The U.S. military has been pivoting away from counter-terrorism, modernizing and adjusting strategies to counter China over the past two years, with Congress broadly granting the Pentagon’s budget requests, and sometimes exceeding them.

Epoch Times Photo
The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam following a Western Pacific deployment, on Nov. 13, 2019. As of March 23, 2020, two sailors stationed on the ship have tested positive for the virus that caused COVID-19. (DOD/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Aja B. Jackson)

However, the new proposals would directly funnel money to the Pacific command, skirting around current Pentagon modernization lines of effort and prioritization.

In April, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, proposed a $6 billion package.

Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he “will gladly consider” Thornberry’s bill and is working on a similar proposal, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on April 22 became the latest member of Congress to push for such an initiative, folding it into a much larger $43 billion proposal, which includes various other measures to bolster U.S. military forces against China.

Cotton’s proposal also includes legislation to sanction foreign officials suppressing information about the CCP virus and a ban on research visas for those working with scientific institutions with links with China’s military.

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One of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, on May 21, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Handout/Reuters)

Cotton’s proposal includes $3.3 billion to shore up the defense industrial base and $11 billion on mitigating the impact of the virus on military procurement.

“The Chinese Communist Party will try to exploit the world’s weakness in the wake of a virus it unleashed, ” Cotton said in a statement. “We cannot allow it to succeed.”

Cotton said that his bill would “greatly strengthen the United States’ position in the Indo-Pacific, allowing us to block China’s goals of regional dominance, and ultimately, competition with the United States.”

The Shifting Overton Window

Various commentators, including the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, have suggested that Beijing’s handling of the pandemic has whetted congressional appetites to ramp up military deterrence against China.

However, Bartels says that the idea of such a deterrence initiative has been around for some time, and was picking up interest anyway. He says that the extra money, such as the $6 billion earmarked by Thornberry, would be only a small portion of the funding that ultimately powers the U.S. military machine in the Pacific.

In funneling money through this route, the proposals from Congress would shift the balance in the bureaucratic tussle between the military commands and the services over strategic direction and influence.

The U.S. military is divided between services such as the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps, and the regional commands, such as those in the Pacific, Middle East, and Africa.

Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Michief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2, 2015. (U.S. Navy)
Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2, 2015. (U.S. Navy)

Commands, as the name suggests, give orders to troops on regional deployment and are the overall command structure in combat. The services, on the other hand, supply the commanders with troops trained and equipped to fight.

The commands are generally seen as having a shorter-term view but with perhaps more on-the-ground experience and know-how, whereas the services have more typically been given more weight in longer-term strategic planning and in modernization efforts.

“Indo-Pacom is more similar to a beat cop, he is in the region, working with the day-to-day activity, whereas the Department of Defense has a more detached, global perspective,” Bartels said.

Congress pushed for greater direct insight from the Indo-Pacific commanders in 2019, mandating a report of recommendations published in March that then formed the basis for the deterrence initiatives.

Sending a Message

Some commentators say that a deterrence initiative would be an opportunity to send a message to Beijing and to regional allies.

“An alignment of the Pentagon and Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill around this effort would be a real opportunity to begin to do in Asia what has already occurred in Europe in the last seven years,” Randy Schriver, former assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, wrote in an article posted on War on the Rocks. 

“The message the European Deterrence Initiative has sent NATO and Russia should be the same signal we want to send our Asian allies and partners as well as those in Beijing who have grown confident of their military capabilities.”

China has increased its military spending by around tenfold in the past 20 years, seeking to undo the dominance of U.S. aircraft carriers with a massive arsenal of long-range missiles.

However, national defense strategy tasks the U.S. military with not only being able to triumph in a full-on conflict but also to be able to jostle for position within the “gray zone” that falls short of war.

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U.S. Marines currently under the 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, and members of the Indian military run to shore on Kakinada Beach, India, on Nov. 19, 2019. (Lance Cpl. Christian Ayers/U.S. Marine Corps)

With China, that means being able to blunt ongoing low-level Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Some China observers have said the communist party has notched up aggression in the South China Sea during the pandemic, while others say it’s too early to tell, or suggest China has simply continued on the previous trajectory.

Within the U.S. leadership, there also appears to be a difference of opinion.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned over the weekend: “You’ve seen, too, China become aggressive even during this crisis, moving ships to the South China Sea, taking down a fishing vessel in the South China Sea. These authoritarian regimes are the kinds of regimes that hope to benefit in times of crisis, in this case a crisis that emanated from one of their countries.”

Pentagon leaders have given general warnings that adversaries may seek to take advantage of the pandemic—but have held back from saying that any country has yet dialed up the tempo as a result of the pandemic.

The Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, Jonathan Hoffman, downplayed the perception of China’s rising aggression in the Pacific during the pandemic.

“China’s been very active in the South China Sea for years,” said Hoffman, listing various incursions. “Whether they’re taking advantage of a crisis, a global crisis for which they were on the front end of, I won’t say that. I think that they are continuing with their destabilizing activities that we have seen for many years.”

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