When the Biden administration presented the annual Pentagon budget to Congress this month, one of the items it highlighted is a dramatic increase in spending to cope with China. The Pentagon asked for $15.3 billion to fund US Pacific forces, more than twice what the Department of Defense asked for last year ($6.1 billion), and a significant boost from the amount Congress authorized last year ($11.5 billion).
To use a soccer term, this budget request and the Biden team’s labeling of China as the greatest threat the United States faces — more so than the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the risk of an expanded war in Europe — looks more and more like an “own goal,” a goal scored inadvertently for the other team.
The United States should prepare for major competition with China, both politically and economically. But it appears that too many US policymakers prefer confrontation, even at the risk of a military conflict.
BIPARTISAN AGREEMENT ON CHINA?
This latest budget request is part of a major pivot by both Democrats and Republicans. It looks like the Biden administration, as well as Congress, are aiming to confront China — a conflict which, if it turns military, could be disastrous for both the United States and China. Yet, the Biden administration appears determined not to let anti-China Republicans out bid an anti-China president. As Asian security expert and former State Department official, Jessica Chen Weiss argues, “ever more vehement opposition to China may be the sole thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on.”
The president’s choice to compete with Republicans on hostility to China may be politically expedient but it is simultaneously dangerous.
In 2022, the Pentagon released a report warning of the “pacing challenge presented by the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] increasingly capable military.” Last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued in a speech on May 22, 2022: “Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious, long-term challenge to the international order. And that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.”
Putting military muscles behind its rhetoric, on Mar. 13, 2023, the White House joined with the United Kingdom and Australia to sell Australia at least three Virginia-class submarines at a cost of about $3 billion each. Thus, Australia and the United Kingdom are joining the United States in building up their military forces as a way to counter China — and be prepared for war if that happens.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines recently testified at a senate Intelligence hearing, “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] represents both the leading and most consequential threat to US national security and leadership.” And to make matters clearer, President Joe Biden has pledged several times to come to the defense of Taiwan if China attacks, a pledge out of step with his predecessors whose long-standing ambiguity on the issue was seen as a way to deter both China and Taiwan from veering from the status quo.
There is much to be concerned about with China’s behavior: its expansion of influence in Asia, its takeover of Hong Kong, its autocratic policies that could have been taken out of George Orwell’s “1984,” its repression of minorities, its threats to Taiwan, Tibet, and India, and its theft of intellectual rights. However, a US mock exercise of a US-Chinese confrontation over China found “the cost will be very high to the Taiwanese infrastructure and economy and to US forces in the Pacific.”
An earlier RAND study indicated, “War between the United States and China could be so ruinous for both countries, for East Asia, and for the world that it might seem unthinkable.” Both countries and the world would be losers in a major military confrontation.
RISKING WAR IS DANGEROUS
Risking war is the wrong approach. As the New York Times editorialized, “Americans’ interests are best served by emphasizing competition with China while minimizing confrontation. Glib invocations of the Cold War are misguided.” Added foreign affairs expert and columnist Fareed Zakaria, “China is a serious strategic competitor . . .That is all the more reason for Washington to shape a rational and considered foreign policy toward it — rather than one forged out of paranoia, hysteria and, above all, fears of being branded as soft.”
The repercussions: any hope of persuading China to participate in talks on nuclear arms limits, already difficult, or producing clear guidelines for economic relations between the two economic superpowers, are diminishing.
The president’s choice to compete with Republicans on hostility to China may be politically expedient but it is simultaneously dangerous. All US presidents delve into political expediency on critical issues in pursuit of larger goals. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave free rein to segregationist Democratic Members of Congress in return for their support for his program to remake American social and economic policy. At the beginning of the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, while believing slavery “a great evil,” refused to join with abolitionists who wanted to outlaw slavery immediately.
These acts of political convenience paid off for Roosevelt and Lincoln; we will not know for years whether Biden’s choices vis-a-vis China will prove a plus or minus in history.
John Isaacs is a Senior Fellow at the Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.