WASHINGTON ― Congressional defense leaders now have at least three competing plans to push back on China in the Pacific. Which will they choose?
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced his own $3.6 billion Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative plan Thursday ― a response to two plans, each called the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative ― that would spend more and be more prescriptive about how the Pentagon would use that money.
“Our goal in this was to send a signal to our partners and allies that we have an enduring commitment to the region and that collectively we want to help address the full spectrum of security threats that our partners and allies in the region face,” a committee aide said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
Among other things, Smith’s plan identifies $3.6 billion in the base budget already detailed in the president’s budget request, and it requires the Pentagon produce a raft of analyses before Congress beefs up U.S. presence in the Pacific. The dollar figure is identified in a nonbinding “sense of Congress” provision.
The language is part of the HASC draft of the annual defense policy bill, due to be marked up in committee July 1. Whatever language survives the markup and amendment process on the floor will become the House’s negotiating position with the Senate, which began a preliminary floor debate this week.
Smith’s plan and the others represent Congress’ efforts to sharpen the Pentagon’s spending and focus in the Asia-Pacific region, even as Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said China is his department’s top adversary.
Each plan was inspired by the multiyear European Deterrence Initiative, which has consumed $22 billion since its inception in response to Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
HASC’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, has proposed an Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative that spends $6 billion ― all in fiscal 2021 ― on specific priorities that include air and missile defense systems as well as new military construction in partner countries.
Thornberry will offer amendments during the markup to get the bill closer to his plan, according to a memo he released Thursday. Smith’s plan lacks “several important elements,” and the amendments will be “focused on specific authorities and investments needed to strengthen greater cooperation with allies and partners,” the memo said.
Smith’s plan would require another strategy from the defense secretary and chief of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command for all the forces, equipment and facilities, and they would need to reassure allies with a detailed budget, timeline and list of locations for proposed assets. Budget justification materials would be required in FY22 and each year after.
Responding to a requirement in the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act, Indo-Pacific Command previously provided Congress with a plan for $20 billion in spending through FY26 so that the combatant command can fulfill the National Defense Strategy and maintain an edge over China.
The idea with the new legislation, a HASC aide said, was to further establish a basis for the initiative and get the Defense Department into regular talks with Congress to describe how the military was meeting Congress’ objectives and spending what lawmakers provided, the HASC aide said.
Congress will have to internally negotiate the final dollar amount for any such fund and what those funds would buy. Once approved by the full House, its version of the NDAA would be reconciled with the Senate’s version, which contains its own Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
The Senate Armed Services Committee-approved plan authorizes $1.4 billion in 2021 (which is $188.6 million more than the president’s budget request) and $5.5 billion in 2022. It also emphasizes investment in an array of specific enabling capabilities and infrastructure.
Its transparency measures aren’t as comprehensive as the HASC bill, but it requires the Pentagon provide detailed information in its annual budget request, including projections for spending over five years.
Compared with the SASC bill, Smith did not propose additional funding as SASC did, nor did he include off-budget wartime funds, a HASC aide said.
“So there’ll be some differences to work out as we go through this,” the aide said, “but we think there’s a bipartisan consensus to try to get it done.”
Inhofe, in a floor speech Thursday, touted the SASC bill’s goal of countering Russia and China, which has “antagonized and harassed Taiwanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Indonesian vessels in the South China Sea.”
“The fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act is all about sending a message to China and Russia,” Inhofe said. “It says: ‘There is no way you can defeat us — so don’t even try.’ ”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.