When U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attempted to lay out the Biden administration’s stance toward Taiwan in his recent speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he reaffirmed the president’s commitment to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Austin also stated that “we do not seek a new Cold War, an Asian NATO.” But in the same speech, Austin demonstrated the Biden administration’s failed hope of having it both ways in the Indo-Pacific region. Austin also used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of the “consequences” that Beijing would suffer in the wake of any attempt to violently subjugate Taiwan.
It is past time for the Biden administration to answer fundamental questions about how it intends to support Taiwan and secure a free and open Indo-Pacific for generations to come.
Today, the Biden team’s plans for maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific are inconsistent. The Biden administration does not want to build an “Asian NATO” or an anti-hegemonic coalition, but neither does the administration intend to rapidly arm Taiwan, allowing it to serve as its own credible threat against Chinese aggression.
If the U.S. will not harden Taiwan or work more closely with allies in the Indo-Pacific, while still seeking to prevent Beijing from subjugating Taiwan, then more U.S. forces should be committed to the Indo-Pacific. The military resources of the United States are not limitless, however, but the Biden administration has failed to make disciplined choices about where to prioritize the commitment of forces and attention.
As a single metric, the number of active duty military personnel assigned to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command were barely higher in 2021 than they were in 2012. By many metrics, the United States is only beginning to run, while China has been sprinting for years. The size of China’s economy surpasses our own, and it fuels China’s military modernization.
China has the world’s largest naval and standing ground forces, as well as the largest air forces in the Indo-Pacific region. China is beating the U.S. on hypersonic weapons; these weapons are capable of evading current missile defenses and are fueled by stolen U.S. technology. China is also fielding anti-ship missiles to hold U.S. ships at risk, and it pledges to become the world leader in artificial intelligence technology by 2030.
The implications of China’s widening military advantages are dire. While China’s sustained military buildup unquestionably supports its ambitions to reunify with Taiwan — and gain a chokehold over the all-important semiconductor industry — we should not naively assume that Beijing’s aims for regional hegemony stop with the island. Manuals and writing from the People’s Liberation Army explain that “as soon as Taiwan is reunified with Mainland China, Japan’s maritime lines of communication will fall completely within the striking ranges of China’s fighters and bombers.”
China consistently racks up diplomatic victories as well. Earlier this year, China inked a new security pact with the Solomon Islands, giving China the right to access naval and port facilities in the Solomons — spread across shipping lanes connecting the United States to Asia.
Congress must address the shortcomings of the Biden administration’s policies toward China, making the hard choices that the Biden administration continues to avoid. The Defense Department can be directed to identify how more varied and expansive regional military training exercises might be conducted to more aggressively operationalize our friendships. Congress must also lend support in efforts to enhance cooperation with Taiwan’s military — particularly via programs involving the U.S. National Guard.
Congress can also train attention on issues the White House continues to shortchange. We can act with urgency to improve missile defenses on Guam, our most pivotal military base in the Western Pacific. Full funding should also be provided for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s $1.5 billion unfunded priorities list, which delivers smart increases for air-launched and naval precision-guided munitions.
Most importantly, Congress must resist the false comfort of assuming that we can afford to shrink our fleet because our vessels are more capable than those that are part of China’s naval force. While we must widen the undersea advantages we retain, we must keep in mind that they are insufficient on their own.
Rigorous analysis demonstrates that China fields 285 modern naval combatants and smaller warships today. In comparison, the U.S. Navy fields 167 comparatively lethal warships. China’s air and missile defenses will hold our assets at risk in any conflict. This only increases the importance of numerous U.S. assets to withstand potential attrition in wartime.
Congress must prevent the Biden administration from pursuing a dangerous path that would shrink our military forces, corrode our readiness and prematurely cede the Indo-Pacific to China. The 2022 National Defense Strategy agrees that China is the pacing threat in the priority theater. It is past time to meet that threat.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking member of its Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.