Major China Bill Puts Military in a Crunch

Dem's 'comprehensive' China defense bill funds reports, not warships

Navy fighters / Getty Images
May 8, 2021

Senate Democrats have billed the Strategic Competition Act as a "comprehensive" check on Chinese aggression, but the legislation fails to deliver on the national security funding necessary to realize its goals, according to former defense officials and Republican critics.

The $7.7 billion spending proposal will pay for dozens of studies of China's tactics to gain diplomatic and technological influence worldwide, but it offers little in terms of American national defense. The lion's share of cash in the bill helps promote global press freedom and increases foreign aid. And its defense-related funding focuses on training, arms sales, and cooperation with allies, with little focus on improving the size and readiness of the U.S. military. Instead, the legislation offers $10 million to build democratic institutions in Hong Kong and millions of dollars dedicated to reforming U.S. engagement at the United Nations to counter China, among many other soft-power initiatives.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee argue Senate Democrats are asking the Defense Department to do more with less. The legislation's funding is enough to close the $7 billion funding gap between the 2021 defense budget and the shrinking 2022 budget after inflation. But Rep. Rob Wittman (R., Va.) said the demands for a modern fighting force will not be realized if Democrats do not increase the defense budget.

"[The bill] is a little bit light on defense policy and spending topics," Wittman said. "It is going to cause some questions to be asked about how we are going to devote those resources."

Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) is spearheading the legislation, which calls for increased technology research, more diplomatic checks on Beijing, as well as larger troop deployments in the region. The majority of the bill's funding, however, is directed to initiatives outside of the Department of Defense. Menendez, who did not return requests for comment, said he hopes the package will begin a "cascade" of activity to confront the Chinese Communist Party, and that his bill meets the China challenge on every front, including militarily.

David Feith, a former senior State Department official under President Trump and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the Senate bill amounts to an unfunded mandate unless Congress follows with a robust defense budget.

"There is a mismatch between the generally correct Biden administration diagnosis of the stakes and magnitude of the China challenge on the one hand, but the administration's unwillingness to increase defense spending on the other—even while blowing out spending in a wide range of domestic areas," Feith said. "It's a signal of confusion to our adversaries and our friends.... If you’re not working on the greater investment side, it will complicate and possibly undermine the full range of what’s necessary."

President Biden's joint address to Congress in April used the looming threat from China to advance technological and domestic reforms, such as universal preschool and green energy, while devoting little attention to military defense. Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) said Democrats are holding back the United States from standing up to China by failing to invest in the U.S. Navy.

"China has a 360-ship navy, and the U.S. has 297," Banks said. "Right now, Democrats’ Senate Budget Committee chair wants to cut the Department of Defense’s budget by 10 percent. If congressional Democrats were earnest about pushing back against Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, they’d be advocating for more investment in our Navy and industrial shipbuilding base."

China has increased its military forces in recent months. Beijing commissioned three advanced warships in April, with several more under construction. On Wednesday, multiple reports indicated China is planning to build an airstrip in Kiribati, one of the closest island chains to Hawaii, as well as several other U.S. and allied military installations.

The bill also signals a potential emphasis for the administration: restraining nuclear weapons. Calling for an arms control discussion with China, the bill states the United States and China are not in an arms race even as Beijing stocks up on advanced weaponry. Rep. Don Bacon (R., Neb.) praised much of the bill but said the United States cannot afford to cut defense, especially in the nuclear realm.

"As long as China remains a threat to the U.S. and our allies, we cannot afford to make any cuts to defense, especially to our nuclear triad," Bacon said. "Within our overarching strategic deterrence framework, both extended nuclear and conventional deterrence must be brought to bear if we are to present a credible challenge to the PRC’s hegemonic ambitions."

The bill, which has been praised by the White House, will likely receive a vote from the Senate in May.