China's response to the coronavirus outbreak has provided a pretext for some in Washington to spar even more openly with Beijing. Top White House advisor Peter Navarro accused the Chinese government of exploiting the pandemic to advance its interests, and one senator even claimed that China is "trying to sabotage" America's search for a vaccine and is bent on "world domination." Steve Bannon, the mastermind of President Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, attributed the death of George Floyd, in large part, to China's misdeeds.
This cartoonish depiction of villainy might be dismissed as campaign season hyperbole if it weren't informing real policy proposals. And if lawmakers wanted to find the most wasteful, counterproductive and inflammatory way to confront China, they couldn't do much better than the newly proposed Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) -- a multi-billion-dollar defense-spending initiative aimed at countering China's rise.
Misconceived as it is, this suite of hypersonic weapons, missile defense equipment and other tools of force projection enjoys bipartisan support and was recently included in the Senate Armed Service Committee's markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Until now, much of the "new Cold War"-style mongering directed at China has been merely rhetorical. The US has not substantially increased its troop levels in East Asia as it once did in Eastern Europe, during the actual Cold War. There have been no clandestine efforts of late to topple unpalatable leaders in South Asia, as there once were in Latin America (as far as we know).
But this new initiative could be a game changer. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, insists "it is time to put our money where our mouth is." Given the appetite that mouth has had for armed conflict in recent decades, this is a horrible idea.
The PDI's financial costs are significant, but so are the costs of heightened confrontation with China -- as are those of launching another military endeavor that lacks the support of the American public. Eurasia Group Foundation polling shows a solid majority of US respondents support reducing America's military presence in Asia, not increasing it.
How much money are we talking about, in this proposed buildup?
If the Senate Armed Services Committee has its way, the plan will cost nearly $7 billion over the next two years and billions more in the years to come. To lawmakers who pour money into the Pentagon's existing $738 billion budget, which exceeds the levels reached during the Korean and Vietnam wars, $7 billion might seem like peanuts -- but it's real money.
It would not be money well spent. The PDI is misguided and unnecessary. America's current military might, which also exceeds the peak of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, is more than enough to address any military challenge posed by China. The US spends two and a half times more than China on its military, and there is no evidence China has ambitions to match or replace its global military machinery. China has made advances in military technology and has sparked concern among analysts with its assertive claims on islands, waters, and airspace in its vicinity, but the fact remains that China has enough problems at home. One analyst suggests that fully half of China's military is devoted to border or internal security, limiting its ability to project power beyond its borders.
Throwing more money at tools of military confrontation is not only a waste of resources, but it likely invites blowback. A major military buildup in East Asia would needlessly antagonize China at a moment when cooperation with Beijing should be the focus, as it's clearly necessary to address the global recession, current and future pandemics, and climate change.
Cooperation on these issues should not preclude assertive opposition to China's human rights abuses and its crackdown in Hong Kong. But a military buildup will not help the US make progress on those fronts. And it could discourage American allies in Asia from building up their own defenses, which could ultimately help China expand in the region.
The PDI's plans to increase US missile defense capabilities in East Asia are particularly alarming. Despite their benign name, missile defense systems are destabilizing weapons. They undermine the logic of deterrence by allowing a nation to launch an attack with less fear of a retaliatory strike. China opposed a 2017 effort to place a missile defense system in South Korea, fearing it could be used to increase US capabilities to attack China's own retaliatory missiles rather than defend against North Korean strikes. They're stunningly ineffective, besides. A former head of the Pentagon's office of operational testing and evaluation himself testified about tests of missile defense systems, "These tests are scripted for success, and what's been astonishing to me is that so many of them have failed."
Washington may view its actions as defensive, but China likely sees American efforts to increase missile defense capabilities as a precursor to attacks on its interests. For starters, the PDI's plans to improve "expeditionary airfield and port infrastructure" will be seen by Chinese leaders as a way for the US to conduct extended military campaigns in their backyard. This perception probably extends to ordinary Chinese. According to a study by the Eurasia Group Foundation, the one thing which would make American-style democracy most attractive to Chinese citizens is if "the foreign policy of the United States was more restrained."
Unfortunately, the current political climate does not bode well for de-escalation. Domestic political factors steer policies on both sides of the Pacific. China's provocative rhetoric toward the US may be designed more to placate or provoke domestic audiences than to signal actual policy moves on security, trade, and the environment. And during a presidential election year in the US, when China-bashing is a perennial campaign strategy of both political parties, harsh rhetoric by President Trump is likely meant to stoke his political base. And the Biden campaign criticized the President for not being tough enough on China.
The American public, however, has little appetite for this escalation. The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee claim the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will "send a strong signal to the Chinese Communist Party that the American people are committed to defending US interests in the Indo-Pacific." But there's little to suggest they are, especially with so much going on at home -- from the pandemic and the ensuing economic crash to demonstrations against police violence.
According to another study by the Eurasia Group Foundation, a firm majority of Americans prefer to respond to China's rising influence in Asia by reducing, not increasing, the US military presence there while transitioning regional allies toward defending themselves. The most popular reason had to do with "eas(ing) the unnecessary burden on soldiers and taxpayers." Clearly and understandably, Americans think their country has overextended itself in recent decades. They appear uninterested in a new military misadventure in Asia even if they are warier of China in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In the end, perhaps the biggest cost of a Pacific Deterrence Initiative is not that it would misread the geopolitics and security dynamics of Asia, but that it would mistake the security interests of America -- and misrepresent the political preferences of Americans.
Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and host of its None Of The Above podcast. William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.