Stop Using China to Increase Our Defense Budget | Opinion

The name of the game in the U.S. national security conversation is now unquestionably "China."

Just four months into President Joe Biden's term, even some conservatives have admitted the continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations with regard to America's foremost geopolitical competitor. The president's Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued in March, mentions China 15 times in its 20 pages of text. The administration's 2022 defense budget request, sent to Congress recently, proposes to handle China through measures like the largest research and development request in the history of the Department of Defense.

But if American national security attention is now fixed squarely on the People's Republic of China (PRC), then so are the interests of the innumerable stakeholders and program managers at the Department of Defense. It may be 30 years since America last won a war, but the Pentagon's record in staying well fed is far better. So China has quickly become a ubiquitous garnish on the defense menu, with hasty sinicization of every weapons system, program and deployment in America's bloated global defense posture.

In Europe, U.S. strategists are attempting to repurpose NATO as a bulwark against China. Never mind that most wealthy European countries free ride on American security guarantees and refuse to adequately fund their own militaries—surely Germany can spare some of its dwindling fleet for freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea? That Europeans seem uninterested in being dragged into a U.S.-China confrontation hasn't impeded this vision of a new mission for an archaic alliance.

Even as the Biden administration speaks of collective security in the Persian Gulf and attempts to renew the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, its own generals warn of China "filling a vacuum" in the region as the U.S. draws down. Despite $6 trillion wasted and more than 7,000 U.S. servicemen killed in wars of choice in the Greater Middle East, the Sino specter is being trotted out in an attempt to prevent any serious revision of the hoary Carter Doctrine. In 2020, the Middle East drew almost as much presence from U.S. aircraft carriers, America's crown jewels of power projection, as the entire Pacific. Afghanistan War dead-enders like Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) have even invoked potential mineral concessions to China as a reason for continuing America's longest war.

China's presence in Africa is primarily commercial, with billions of dollars of annual foreign direct investment into infrastructure and the presence of a small but savvy expatriate merchant class. China now boasts a lone overseas military base in Djibouti, against 29 U.S. bases on the continent. This has led General Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, to warn Congress that "China has invested heavily in their second continent, or as some think tanks call it, their fourth or fifth island chain."

Flag of the People's Republic of China
The flag of the People's Republic of China flies behind barbed wire at the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in San Francisco, California, on July 23, 2020. PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images

Framing the U.S.-China competition as "the new Cold War" is unedifying, primarily because both countries are still economically tightly intertwined. But there is at least one lesson to be drawn from America's long twilight struggle against Soviet communism: a superpower competition won't be won or lost militarily in peripheral theaters. Despite a humiliating defeat in Vietnam, America's nuclear arsenal and conventional forces in Europe continued to deter the USSR. Russia's own Vietnam, in Afghanistan, at best slightly hastened the Soviet Union's collapse. It was U.S. economic strength and technological dynamism—and the inherent flaws of communism—that decisively defeated the Soviets in less than 50 years.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations got the main thing right: China is America's foremost competitor and potential adversary. The PRC is an increasingly authoritarian and hostile state, with power and influence that may well dwarf what Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia could draw on. America's resources are increasingly finite: General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in December that "at best, the Pentagon's budgets will start flattening out."

These resource constraints necessitate a ruthless focus on key regions and instruments of national power, not a vain attempt to continue to try to do everything, everywhere. Strategy is about prioritization and making hard decisions. The various stakeholders in the U.S. defense establishment, the geographic combatant commands foremost among them, should not be allowed to add a thin veneer of China justification and then carry on with business as usual. Many if not most current U.S. military deployments and overseas installations are a distraction from great power competition. To update Otto von Bismarck's famous quip, sub-Saharan Africa is not worth the bones of a single Pennsylvanian paratrooper.

American hubris and delusions of permanent unipolarity helped enable China's rise while also contributing greatly to domestic dysfunction and discord. If the United States is going to successfully compete with, and if need be, contain and deter China, it needs to avoid trivia. The challenge of China demands that the Defense Department direct the vast majority of its resources and bandwidth to Asia and the U.S. Navy, the critical region and military service in any future confrontation. The Biden administration should reject attempts to use China to keep every Pentagon program fed.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.