Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 6 December 2020


Defense bill offers Biden’s team a new framework to counter China

Vice President Biden meets with American military personnel in Panmunjom, South Korea, in 2013.
Vice President Biden meets with American military personnel in Panmunjom, South Korea, in 2013. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Congressional leaders rolled out the proposals late last week, as Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe warned in a CBS News interview of unprecedented “overt and covert” lobbying efforts by Beijing “to make sure that only laws that are favorable to China are passed” in the United States.

While experts characterized the defense bill’s China provisions as “good first steps,” more than a dramatic overhaul, they stressed that the measures are nonetheless an important sign that Congress expects the incoming administration to mount a credible challenge to China — and that lawmakers will be watching.

“All too often we talk about what we need to do and don’t put our money where our mouth is,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that lawmakers are clearly “concerned about ensuring that the appropriate level of attention and resources are given going forward to China.”

“Congress is sending a clear signal here,” Glaser continued, summing up the bill’s message to the Biden administration in one phrase: “move it forward.”

The flagship China-focused program in the defense bill is the new Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which aims to establish a regionwide approach to countering China in its immediate area of influence. Its inspiration comes from the European Deterrence Initiative, launched in 2014 to bolster the presence of U.S. forces to help defend NATO allies against Russian aggression.

The new initiative is funded at $2.2 billion for the first year — a fraction of the legislation’s $740.5 billion price tag — and charged, generally, with enhancing the United States’ defense posture, capabilities and alliances in the region. But aides to members of the armed services committees acknowledge that how the initiative is rolled out will depend in large part on what the Biden administration decides to do with it.

Uniformed commanders and experts alike have noted that countering China will be one of the earliest and most important challenges for the Biden administration, as China’s rise has challenged the United States militarily, economically, and technologically. The defense bill attempts to reflect that with provisions encompassing not just the expansion of U.S. military assets to counter Beijing’s influence, but efforts to safeguard intellectual property, limit China’s access to World Bank assistance and even take a stand against human rights abuses in Hong Kong by denying law enforcement authorities there certain defense-related exports.

“China has arrived as the other superpower, and by that token Biden doesn’t have any choice but to try to define a new way of thinking about the challenge,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert and director of foreign policy research with the Brookings Institution. He noted that while the bill gives the defense secretary plenty of direction, it leaves the Biden administration ample latitude to chart its own response to Beijing.

“If I were part of the incoming Biden team, I would say to Congress, ‘Thank you,’ because it is sometimes useful to thematically organize ideas . . . but there isn’t so much detail to oblige Biden to do that but what he wanted to do,” O’Hanlon added.

For Congress, however, the new initiatives are driven not just by the desire to bolster the country’s posture against China, but to give lawmakers more control over how the coordinated competition with Beijing is staged.

The bill orders the defense secretary to tell Congress by February exactly what resources the Pentagon will need to achieve the goals of the deterrence initiative, and follow up with periodic status reports. The bill also orders the Pentagon to give Congress at least 90 days’ notice before attempting to reduce U.S. troop levels in South Korea below 28,500.

Compliance with the reporting requirements is expected to influence not only the debate on Capitol Hill, where there is proven bipartisan interest in measures to constrain China’s influence, but also the way that defense funds to address the region are apportioned in the future.

The expectation is that the deterrence initiative will see an expansion in funding in years ahead: In the conference report accompanying the compromise legislation, lawmakers stated they envision funding for the program more than doubling in fiscal 2022.

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