How Bipartisan Anti-China Rhetoric Is Being Used to Increase U.S. Military Spending

Republicans and Democrats are using the “menace” of China to justify pouring billions into the Pentagon’s budget.

Sarah Lazare

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) speaks to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) during a House Armed Services Committee hearing July 9, 2020. GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

With lit­tle pub­lic atten­tion or debate, the call for greater con­fronta­tion with Chi­na is being used by both Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats to jus­ti­fy fun­nel­ing bil­lions more in spend­ing toward the Pentagon’s bud­get and pur­sue mil­i­tary buildup across the Asia-Pacif­ic region. The con­gres­sion­al push to beef up the 2021 Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA), which deter­mines the annu­al bud­get of the Depart­ment of Defense, is rais­ing con­cern among some anti-war advo­cates, who oppose efforts to fur­ther mil­i­ta­rize U.S. soci­ety by cast­ing Chi­na as America’s num­ber-one enemy.

The Sen­ate ver­sion of the NDAA, which passed on July 23 in a vote of 86 – 14, allo­cates $6 bil­lion to the Pacif­ic Deter­rence Ini­tia­tive” over the course of two years: $1.4 bil­lion in 2021 and $5.5 bil­lion in 2022, accord­ing to Lind­say Koshgar­i­an, the pro­gram direc­tor of the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project and an expert in mil­i­tary budgets.

The ini­tia­tive is intend­ed to increase the lethal­i­ty of the joint force in the Indo-Pacif­ic region,” accord­ing to the NDAA, by for­ti­fy­ing U.S. allies and part­ners in the region, and improv­ing U.S. mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties, includ­ing through pro­cure­ment and field­ing” of long-range pre­ci­sion strike sys­tems.” A state­ment from the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee released in June calls the ini­tia­tive a strong sig­nal to the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty that Amer­i­ca is deeply com­mit­ted to defend­ing our inter­ests in the Indo-Pacific.”

The House, mean­while, passed its own anti-Chi­na ini­tia­tive in its ver­sion of the NDAA, which was approved on July 21 by a vote of 295 – 125. The Indo-Pacif­ic Reas­sur­ance Ini­tia­tive” allo­cates $3.6 bil­lion for 2021. While the NDAA does not spec­i­fy an amount for 2022, it does say the Depart­ment of Defense should make a plan for future bud­get requests.” And accord­ing to Koshgar­i­an, who also ver­i­fied these num­bers, it’s safe to assume that it would con­tin­ue at a sim­i­lar or high­er lev­el.” She adds that the NDAA spec­i­fies that the ini­tia­tive should come in at a min­i­mum of $3.6 bil­lion, so the final amount could come in high­er if oth­er, more flex­i­ble funds are also ded­i­cat­ed to this initiative.”

The House ini­tia­tive is aimed at opti­miz­ing the pres­ence of Unit­ed States Armed Forces in the region,” improv­ing mil­i­tary infra­struc­ture, and strength­en­ing and main­tain­ing bilat­er­al and mul­ti­lat­er­al mil­i­tary exer­cis­es and train­ing” with U.S. allies, accord­ing to the House NDAA, whose anti-Chi­na pro­pos­als were bipartisan. 

The House ver­sion mir­rors a pro­pos­al put for­ward in June by Rep. Adam Smith (D‑Wash.), Chair­man of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, who called for a $3.58 bil­lion Indo-Pacif­ic Reas­sur­ance Ini­tia­tive,” which he said should opti­mize the pres­ence of U.S. forces in the region” and build the defense and secu­ri­ty capa­bil­i­ties, capac­i­ty, and coop­er­a­tion of allies and part­ner nations.” Smith, a sig­nif­i­cant recip­i­ent of mon­ey from defense indus­try PACs, has a hawk­ish record, and in July vot­ed against an amend­ment to cut the U.S. mil­i­tary bud­get by 10% and put that mon­ey toward coro­n­avirus relief and oth­er social programs.

Smith’s pro­pos­al close­ly resem­bles leg­is­la­tion draft­ed by Rep. Mac Thorn­ber­ry (R‑Texas), the rank­ing Repub­li­can on the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, to cre­ate an Indo-Pacif­ic Deter­rence Ini­tia­tive” to the tune of $6 bil­lion. When unveil­ing that leg­is­la­tion in April, Thorn­ber­ry (the House’s top recip­i­ent of fund­ing from defense indus­try PACs and indi­vid­u­als dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion cycle) under­scored its bipar­ti­san sup­port. Senior offi­cials from both par­ties, mil­i­tary com­man­ders and inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty experts have told us for years that the Indo-Pacif­ic must be this country’s pri­or­i­ty the­ater,” Thorn­ber­ry said at the time. (Smith, for his part, praised Thornberry’s pro­pos­al and claimed he shared the priority.)

The Sen­ate and House ver­sions of the NDAA — both of which allo­cate a whop­ping $740.5 bil­lion for the 2021 mil­i­tary bud­get — must next be rec­on­ciled, some­thing that like­ly will not hap­pen until after the Novem­ber 3 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But giv­en that anti-Chi­na ini­tia­tives are includ­ed in both ver­sions, the final is all but cer­tain to include bil­lions more for U.S. troop deploy­ments, mil­i­tary infra­struc­ture, exer­cis­es, weapons buildup and sup­port for proxy forces in the region. Accord­ing to Joseph Ger­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cam­paign for Peace, Dis­ar­ma­ment and Com­mon Secu­ri­ty at the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee, The con­fronta­tion across the board with Chi­na is cur­rent­ly the dri­ving force behind mil­i­tary spending.”

The impli­ca­tions extend far beyond the imme­di­ate lan­guage of the bills. Increas­ing­ly, it’s not just about the mon­ey that’s very specif­i­cal­ly allo­cat­ed for that region, but also every­thing in that part of the world is going to be increas­ing­ly jus­ti­fied,” says Koshgar­i­an. Even things we already have — our bases in Japan and South Korea, and cer­tain­ly there’s a lot of focus on the South Chi­na Sea — it’s all going to be increas­ing­ly jus­ti­fied by the focus on China.” 

And indeed, both the House and Sen­ate ver­sions of the NDAA include mea­sures that make it hard­er for the Unit­ed States to with­draw troops from South Korea, despite vocif­er­ous oppo­si­tion in that coun­try to the U.S. military’s pres­ence. Both ver­sions include lan­guage that pro­hibits using NDAA funds to reduce the U.S. troop pres­ence below 28,500 unless the reduc­tion is proven to be in U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty interests.

Tobi­ta Chow, the direc­tor of ​Jus­tice is Glob­al, which calls itself a grass­roots move­ment,” warns that as the U.S.-China con­flict con­tin­ues to esca­late, it’s going to increase the dan­gers for every­one who’s caught in between. That includes the Kore­an Penin­su­la, Tai­wan and South­east Asia.” He adds that he is also con­cerned about Africa, where the U.S. is using China’s eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties to jus­ti­fy expand­ing its own mil­i­tary pres­ence. Who­ev­er is in the White House,” says Chow, this cre­ates real­ly dan­ger­ous pres­sures.” (Dis­clo­sure: Chow serves on the board of In These Times.)

Beyond direct mil­i­tary buildup, there are signs that the final NDAA could also include ini­tia­tives aimed at for­ti­fy­ing U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies, and blam­ing Chi­na for the Covid-19 cri­sis. The Sen­ate ver­sion of the bill says it’s a pol­i­cy of the Unit­ed States to counter the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty’s efforts to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion in the People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na and beyond with respect to the response of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty to Covid – 19.” It also includes a plan for the FBI to Increase Pub­lic Aware­ness and Detec­tion of Influ­ence Activ­i­ties by the Gov­ern­ment Of The Peo­ple’s Repub­lic Of China.”

While both ver­sions of the NDAA leave the infra­struc­ture of the so-called War on Ter­ror intact, they each sig­nal a shift towards pri­or­i­tiz­ing oppo­si­tion to Chi­na pri­mar­i­ly, as well as Rus­sia. One of the things that’s so dan­ger­ous about this is that, for the most part, there’s pret­ty unques­tioned bipar­ti­san agree­ment that these are legit­i­mate goals,” says Koshgar­i­an. There is bipar­ti­san agree­ment that we need huge Pen­ta­gon bud­gets, and we should jus­ti­fy them by hav­ing com­mon ene­mies. There is agree­ment that Chi­na is going to be this com­mon enemy.”

This trend is not new. The Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion made coun­ter­ing Chi­na a cen­ter­piece of its for­eign pol­i­cy: The Asia-Pacif­ic mil­i­tary piv­ot (how­ev­er incom­plete) and the pro­posed Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship trade deal were both aimed at hedg­ing against the country.

But anti-Chi­na poli­cies were esca­lat­ed by Trump. In a 2017 report on nation­al secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy,” the Trump admin­is­tra­tion empha­sized great pow­er com­pe­ti­tion between the Unit­ed States and Chi­na, cast­ing the coun­try — along­side Rus­sia — as a threat to U.S. safe­ty and pros­per­i­ty. Chi­na seeks to dis­place the Unit­ed States in the Indo-Pacif­ic region, expand the reach­es of its state-dri­ven eco­nom­ic mod­el, and reorder the region in its favor,” the doc­u­ment states.

On May 20, 2020, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion released a report on the U.S. government’s strate­gic approach” to Chi­na that dou­bled down on the 2017 doc­u­ment, empha­siz­ing fierce mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic com­pe­ti­tion with Chi­na. The report argues that there is lit­tle room for U.S.-China coop­er­a­tion, but rather, the coun­try must be fierce­ly opposed. The Unit­ed States rec­og­nizes the long-term strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion between our two sys­tems,” the doc­u­ment states.

Through­out the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic and pres­i­den­tial cam­paign sea­son, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has leaned into its bel­liger­ence toward Chi­na, espous­ing evi­dence-free the­o­ries that the coro­n­avirus was made in a Wuhan lab, and that Chi­na was delib­er­ate­ly spread­ing the virus via air­line trav­el­ers, per­sist­ing even amid warn­ings that such rhetoric was fuel­ing a spate of racist attacks against Asian-Americans.

Yet the grow­ing push for con­fronta­tion with Chi­na has been rel­a­tive­ly bipar­ti­san, with the Biden cam­paign engag­ing in its own anti-Chi­na ads and rhetoric. (The cam­paign did roll back some of his rhetoric in response to accu­sa­tions of racism.) The 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty Plat­form, fur­ther­more, does not fun­da­men­tal­ly chal­lenge Trump’s great pow­er com­pe­ti­tion, and instead depicts Chi­na as a key men­ace. We will ral­ly friends and allies across the world to push back against Chi­na or any oth­er country’s attempts to under­mine inter­na­tion­al norms,” the doc­u­ment states. While the lan­guage is less bel­li­cose than Trump’s, the plat­form nonethe­less strikes a mil­i­tary pos­ture, and vows to resist the Chi­nese military’s intim­i­da­tion in the South Chi­na Sea.”

The right’s ver­sion of anti-Chi­na rhetoric is more volatile and giv­en to con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, which are very dan­ger­ous,” says Chow. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s ver­sion is less volatile and more long term, with more of an empha­sis on build­ing deep­er alliances and con­struct­ing a larg­er anti-Chi­na front and con­test­ing for­eign influence.”

He adds, But we should be wary of the abil­i­ty of the lib­er­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty side of the nation­al secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment, along with mod­er­ate fig­ures in the Repub­li­can Par­ty, to sell them­selves as offer­ing a ​‘more rea­son­able approach’ to Chi­na and down­play­ing how dan­ger­ous this anti-Chi­­na mil­i­tarism real­ly is in order to con­struct a larg­er and more pow­er­ful coali­tion behind this anti-Chi­­na strategy.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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