The U.S. Congress last week passed the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA is blithely referred to as the defense budget, which it is — and a whole lot more. Given the partisan divisions that ensnare most everything in U.S. politics and the readiness of virtually all small-government conservatives to fund the military, the legislation has been increasingly festooned with security-related initiatives. The 2021 bill is no exception.
This year’s NDAA includes the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), which while a virtual drop in the budget — $2.2 billion in a $740.5 billion package — is a potentially big deal for regional security. Used properly, the PDI would confirm the U.S. commitment to the defense of the region and significantly strengthen the military’s ability to deter adversaries and maintain the peace. “Used properly …”
U.S. presidents have talked up the importance of the Asia Pacific for decades. Obama’s “re-balance” reflected a belief that global power was shifting as a result of Asia’s rise, and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, Trump’s foreign policy bumper sticker, built on that understanding. If the talk was consistent, so too was performance: In every case and in every dimension, words outpaced deeds, and funds in particular remained short.
The PDI aims to fill that gap. The initial version was proposed in 2017 by Sen. John McCain, then head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His “Indo-Pacific Stability Initiative” would provide Pacific Command, the headquarters for U.S. military forces in the region, with $1.5 billion annually for five years for warfighting: Funds were for operational military construction, munitions procurement, capacity building with allies and partners, and exercises and other training activities.
McCain’s proposal was sidelined but two years later Congress mandated that the head of Pacific Command (now called Indo-Pacific Command) submit an assessment of resources required through 2026 to meet operational responsibilities. Congress wanted a report from the individual in charge of defending the region, an analysis that wouldn’t be diluted by responsibilities elsewhere in the world. That report, “Regain the Advantage,” included a $20 billion wish list (spread over six years) and it shaped the NDAA. Importantly, this isn’t a one-off deal: The NDAA calls on the administration to submit a plan on PDI funding and activities, with the region’s commander obliged to report on what is needed to fulfill responsibilities under other guidance documents, like the National Defense Strategy.
The PDI was inspired by the European Defense Initiative (EDI), which followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Department of Defense has spent $22 billion on that project, and those monies have been used for operational needs to deter Russia: increased presence, exercises, prepositioning, infrastructure and partner capacity efforts. The new NDAA requests $4.5 billion for EDI, about twice the PDI funds.
Randall Schriver, former assistant secretary of Defense for the Indo-Pacific, and Eric Sayers, a former McCain staffer and advisor to the Pacom commander, fault U.S. planners for failing to invest in the “enabling technologies” that are critical to warfighting concepts being developed. For example, the world’s most modern fighter aircraft has limited effectiveness when few of them are stationed in the region, there are limited airfields to operate from or they don’t have prepositioned fuel and munitions.
Sayers, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, blames institutional and bureaucratic turf wars. “The services have so much power in the process and they favor spending on modernization and readiness over intertheater infrastructure and other joint warfighting capabilities. Setting aside a pot of money that the service will execute but can be designated through a coordinated effort with Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff and INDOPACOM is an ideal approach to ensuring the resources are there for critical investments that often get left behind.”
A more capable military, one that can “regain the advantage,” will deter adversaries and reassure allies. It will put substance behind that Asia/Indo-Pacific rhetoric by forcing military planners and strategists to invest in ways that are directly related to theater needs — high-end munitions, runways and port infrastructure air bases, fuel and munition storage, command and control tools, and other joint capabilities. A $6.9 billion budget over two years is the foundation for a build-out by the Biden administration to make real its regional commitment.
A quick survey of officials and experts throughout the region revealed interest in, support for and skepticism about PDI. The reaction of one Southeast Asian diplomat was typical: “While PDI sounds interesting for U.S.– Indo-Pacific relations, the region will welcome it with doubt until PDI turns into real and concrete benefits.” Paul Choi, a military strategist in Seoul, explained that “PDI is necessary but insufficient to recover confidence in the U.S. position here.” For Choi, a key question is “whether the U.S. can efficiently invest the resources that compose the PDI to effectively bolster alliances and raise U.S. competitiveness.”
There is much more to the NDAA than just the PDI. “The China threat” runs through the document. In addition to big-ticket items, various sections mandate such measures as an assessment of the industrial base of China and other adversaries; studies of Chinese cyberespionage and theft activities; the annual report on the People’s Liberation Army; analysis of Chinese money-laundering and research and development efforts, as well as Beijing’s international standard-setting diplomacy and the activities of the United Front Department, which oversees the Chinese Communist Party’s overseas influence activities, among others. Other provisions limit Department of Defense funding for U.S. universities that host Confucius Institutes and demand a U.S. strategy to counter China in Africa.
In other words, the NDAA is forcing the administration to forge a whole of government strategy to deal with China. The bill’s “mandates” direct the Departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Security, not just Defense. The Trump administration was moving in this direction when it published in May “The Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” but it was late into its tenure, an “approach” is not a strategy and “process” was never team Trump’s strong point. This last concern was evident in NDAA provisions requiring Congressional approval before cutting troop levels in South Korea and Germany.
The whole of government logic also means that funds for warfighting won’t be enough. The military has little to do with countering influence operations. Success on that front demands support for civil society and regional democracy initiatives. Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, endorsed that logic, hoping that “the U.S. focus is on people to people connections rather than just the region's elites because it’s the latter which have fallen under the PRC money spell. Grassroots engagement will pay good relationship dividends.”
As always, much depends on the success of efforts to work with regional allies to forge the coalition of forces that multiplies U.S. capabilities in the region. Ken Jimbo, a Keio university professor who advises the minister of Defense, “welcomes the initiative because it assures credibility of the U.S. commitment to fight in the theater and good encouragement for further defense cooperation with allies.” But as Paul Choi astutely added, money is necessary but not sufficient. “An additional determinant of whether PDI will succeed is whether the U.S. will as part of its efforts. work to evolve its organizational culture, specifically the way in which the U.S. security enterprise and community cooperates with partners and allies.”
Trump threatened to veto the NDAA because of language that requires military bases named after Confederate leaders be renamed, and because it doesn’t include repeal of authority granting legal immunity to online companies. That shouldn’t matter as the bill passed both houses with veto-proof majorities. Some Republicans indicated that they won’t cross the president, however, and might change their vote if he does. While the bill would be delayed and then passed by the new administration if the veto sticks, that is precisely the sort of half-hearted move that would undo the message intended to be sent by the PDI.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions" (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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