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War with China isn’t inevitable: The Pentagon’s budget says otherwise

A doozy combination of threat inflation and issue conflation is driving a steady drumbeat for war with China, and that rhetoric is becoming policy faster than anyone can even ask the most basic questions. 

The foreign policy establishment, including senior U.S. military leadership and influential members of Congress, appears to have accepted war with China as a foregone conclusion — and their decisions on the federal government’s budget reflect that assumption. 

But contrary to Washington’s consensus, there is little reason to believe that war between our two countries is imminent. The reality is that China’s military posture is defensive and the threat it poses to the U.S. has been greatly inflated. The People’s Liberation Army Navy does not have the capability to project power beyond its immediate vicinity. On the other hand, the existing colossal footprint of the U.S. military in the Pacific already serves as a strong deterrent, and then some. 

None of these facts seem to matter in this year’s budget process though, which is shaping up to be a sensational military spending spree. President Biden’s 2024 budget calls for an absurd $886 billion in military spending; 52 percent of the government’s annual discretionary spending. And if recent history stays the course, the actual budget passed by Congress will be even higher — all the while defense contractors rake in massive profits

The military threat from China is the main justification cited by both the White House and the Department of Defense for their astronomical budget request. But already, the GOP is doubling down on threat inflation and calling this historically high budget inadequate to counter China, priming the pump for an even greater military spending increase. 

Service branches and combatant commands are also getting in on the act, through their “unfunded priorities lists” or “wish lists” to Congress. These wish lists are routinely used by hawks in Congress to add even more spending to the already bloated military budget. Indo-Pacific Command has come out with a $3.4 billion ask, while the U.S. Navy has requested $2 billion

Not all wish lists from service branches and combatant commands are out yet, but already the combined total of what’s public so far has reached a whopping $17 billion. Compare that to the Environmental Protection Agency’s entire discretionary budget of $10.1 billion for 2023, but I digress. This practice of service branches and combatant commands independently requesting more money is so egregious that even Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has come out against it. 

Already with existing funding, the Pentagon is opening up four new bases in the Philippines, increasing its rotational presence in Australia, upgrading and expanding equipment and infrastructure in existing bases and more. If Congress rubber stamps this new budget request, these additional billions of dollars will further escalate tensions by turbocharging the U.S. military’s expansion in the Pacific, leaving critical domestic priorities lacking.

While the intention behind all of this spending is deterrence, it is more likely than not to have the opposite result. Rapidly escalating our military presence in the Pacific increases the risk of accidental conflict due to misunderstanding or miscalculation, especially at a time when tensions between the U.S. and China are extremely high and volatile. 

The grim reality is that any shooting war between the U.S. and China would unleash unthinkable chaos on the global stage and inflict massive casualties on both sides — not to mention the risk of it rapidly spiraling into a nuclear confrontation. Compounding this, the de-escalation mechanisms between our two countries appear broken right now, which makes each crisis even more dangerous. 

Fortunately, there is still time to pull us off this path to potential war. 

Congress must assert its constitutional prerogative and push back against this preparation for war while there’s still time. And there’s no better place to exercise oversight than through the power of the purse. The unfunded priorities lists should be the first to go, followed by a thorough and skeptical review of the Biden administration’s absurd $886 billion military budget request. 

A threat inflation tax to prepare for an avoidable war is the last thing people need. At its core, U.S. foreign policy and its accompanying spending should be rooted in conflict prevention, not preparation. 

Yint Hmu is a senior associate for digital campaigns at Win Without War. You can follow him on Twitter @yinth_.

Tags Defense spending Indo-Pacific Strategy Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Pentagon budget Politics of the United States us-china policy US-China tensions

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