You can’t win against China with billions of Pentagon dollars

Congress has authorized $7 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, the Pentagon’s program to confront China. This continues the US’ flawed practice of throwing money at the military to solve problems created by bad policy.

Like its predecessors, the PDI is doomed to fail.

The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as passed by the US Congress, authorizes $768 billion to be spent on various defense-related activities in the coming year. This is $36 billion more than the $732 billion in discretionary spending for national defense authorized in last year’s NDAA, which included $69 billion to fund so-called Overseas Contingency Operations and the US involvement in Afghanistan. One would think that having precipitously ended America’s 20-year misadventure in that country there would have been some sort of “peace dividend” that reflected the fact the US is no longer underwriting the cost of waging a war on a faraway land. But that would be wishful thinking.

The Pentagon, it seems, cannot be satisfied with the end of a “forever war” that cost the American people thousands of dead, tens of thousands of wounded, and trillions of dollars of wasted national treasure (not to mention the loss of national prestige that comes with having the world’s sole remaining superpower bested by lightly armed tribesmen.) No – having squandered American resources in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has now turned its sights on the Pacific, where it seeks to square off against China as part of the US’ desperate attempt to retain the relevancy it has enjoyed in that region since the end of the Second World War.

The 2022 NDAA sets aside some $7.1 billion in support of a new Pentagon adventure, the so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI. The PDI addresses an expansive China that, in the words of John Ratcliffe, the former director of National Intelligence, “poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II.” He said, “Beijing intends to dominate the US and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically.”

The interesting thing about the PDI is that it is largely a Congressional-driven initiative that seeks to wrap up several separate Pentagon funding initiatives into a single, focused effort designed to send a political signal not only to China, but also the administration of President Joe Biden. “All too often we talk about what we need to do and don’t put our money where our mouth is,”Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said recently. In passing the PDI, Glaser noted, Congress is sending a clear signal that it is “concerned about ensuring that the appropriate level of attention and resources are given going forward to China.

The PDI is written in classic “Pentagonese”, laced with jargon designed to impart the impression of strength and gravitas. “Given the full scope of the challenges in the Indo-Pacific,” it declares, “DoD views the development of advanced, asymmetric capabilities and capacity designed to operate in an anti-access/area-denial environment as centrally important to Pacific deterrence.” The PDI invests in programs involving “improved long-range munitions development and procurement, advanced strike platforms, expanded forward-force posture and resiliency, targeted security cooperation programs to enhance the capabilities of our allies and partners, innovative exercises and experimentation, and technologically superior Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.”

It’s a mouthful, to be sure. But words – even words backed by billions of dollars – do not automatically translate into real capability. Take the inspiration for the PDI, for instance. In 2014, the Obama administration enacted the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), a one-year, one-billion-dollar injection of money-backed political will intended as an emergency response to Russia’s “provocative actions in Ukraine” and the “annexation” of Crimea. After two years and nearly two billion dollars, the ERI was renamed the European Defense Initiative (EDI), and with the rebranding came more money – lots more. In 2017, Congress gave the Pentagon $3.4 billion, and ,in 2018, $4.8 billion. Between 2019 and 2021, the Pentagon poured another $17.3 billion into the EDI.

Seven years and $27.5 billion later, what did the Pentagon buy with American taxpayers’ money? Not much. And the current standoff between NATO and Russia over Ukraine only proves that.

It’s more than likely that, in a similar faceoff with the US, China will eventually call the American bluff in the Pacific. Deterrence is best achieved from a position of genuine strength. Given the age-old Clausewitzian maxim that holds war to be an extension of politics, to fund a military-based deterrence strategy built on policies that lack broad-based support among the very nations the US is hoping to corral into a Pacific NATO-like anti-Chinese alliance, Congress is putting the cart before the horse.

The military cannot take the lead on crafting a sound response to concerns over the expansive Chinese economic presence in the world today. The military cannot be seen as a substitute for bad policy – no amount of military spending can undo the damage done whenDonald Trump precipitously withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, paving the way for China to implement the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in 2020, followed by China’s recent application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the follow-on to the TPP cobbled together by the remaining TPP partners after the US withdrawal. Given that the TPP had been the cornerstone of the Obama-era “pivot to Asia” policy – which was designed to confront and limit Chinese regional influence and had deliberately excluded China from its ranks to isolate and weaken it – the Chinese application to join the CPTPP can only be seen as the geopolitical equivalent of a match-winning reversal in wrestling.

No amount of defense-related spending can overcome this kind of policy deficit. The PDI, like its EDI inspiration, is doomed to fail. China, like Russia, is vigorously implementing policies designed to strengthen what it claims are its legitimate national security interests. In confronting them, the US has leapfrogged over the need to construct policy derived from similar legitimate national security interests, and instead fund military activities that – void of the very political foundation of legitimacy that would ensure such military programing had a sense of purpose – simply create a mechanism by which billions of dollars are wasted on political posturing designed solely for a domestic political audience.

Geopolitics, however, operates in a reality-based world that pays short-shrift to fantasy. The PDI is doomed to fail before it even gets started. At best, this will be a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar waste of time and money. At worst, the US will find itself on the losing end of a proposition by which an inadequately funded military initiative, backed by incoherent policy, and fueled by domestically driven political ambition, flounders on the shoals of Chinese reality.

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