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Congress must stop the march toward war with China

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks left no room for misinterpretation about why President Biden’s proposed defense budget increases former President Trump’s already egregious Pentagon topline by more than $12 billion. “The department in this budget takes a clear-eyed approach to Beijing and provides the investments to prioritize China as our pacing challenge,” she said.

Indeed, it seems the Biden administration has done little more than copy and paste Trump’s defense budget, emphasizing China as a core military threat.

Congress appears to be taking a similar approach. Recently, a host of China-focused language was put into the Endless Frontier Act. Among the provisions were limitations on research collaboration between Americans and foreigners and offers of security assistance to global partners willing to counter China. While China’s rise is a significant geopolitical challenge, Congress should dial back the march toward a new Cold War, swapping military dominance for diplomacy and cooperation to address the varied threats China poses.

In an era of globalization and increased economic interdependence, approaching China as a military threat misunderstands China’s grand strategy. This approach is already leading us toward billions of dollars of wasted defense funding. As House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith noted at a Ronald Reagan Institute event in April, the Biden administration’s defense strategy is “too big, too ambitious, and too unachievable,” in regards to countering China.

A 2020 RAND Corporation report also concluded that our current competitive posture toward China — a continuation of Trump-era distrust — is most likely to lead to military confrontation and conflict. Unless Democrats put forward a different strategy, this trajectory could lead us to another unwinnable war.

The Biden defense budget calls for an increase in funds for investing in new military technologies and for “nuclear modernization.” Proponents argue that China is increasing their nuclear arsenal, and that in order to counter this threat, we must invest in the best, most destructive technology available. The problem is that the most urgent challenges China poses to global security are largely not military in nature. China is an economic power whose strategy relies on economic investment and newer technologies, including cyber warfare and disinformation.

Rather than greenlighting horrifically expensive and unsafe technologies like the GBSD and SLCM-N nukes, Congress should invest more in infrastructure and development, including poverty alleviation and education, both at home and abroad, as well as repair strained diplomatic relationships with China and other global partners.

As military analysts inflate the military threat China poses, it is worth considering our countries’ relative military might. The U.S. military claims nearly half of the entire U.S. discretionary budget, allocating more financial resources than the next 10 countries combined. The costs of nuclear weapons have drastically increased in recent years, with the projected cost of modernization being $505 billion over the next 25 years. While China is the No. 2 military spender globally, the U.S. military budget remains nearly three times larger. Whereas the U.S. nuclear stockpile holds 3,800-plus warheads, China only holds around 200.

Continuing an adversarial relationship and further developing the U.S. arsenal sends an escalatory message: that we are preparing for war. As the Arms Control Association has warned, this approach will likely escalate nuclear competition when in reality reduction is needed to ease tensions.

In considering both the budget and other China-focused “strategic competition” legislation, Congress should note that unlike the U.S., China has a “no first use” policy in place, meaning they will only use nuclear weapons defensively, not offensively. They have also removed their missiles from “launch on warning” status, another assurance that these weapons will not be unintentionally deployed. These are commonsense reforms that, if adopted by the U.S., would lead to confidence-building measures that open the door to decreasing nuclear arsenals globally.

Let’s be clear: the challenges faced by the rise of China are real, not least for minority populations like the Uyghurs who face state-led ethnic cleansing, and cannot be addressed through Pentagon posturing and reckless military spending. As our nation begins the arduous journey into COVID-19 recovery, Congress has a limited opportunity to stand up to the military establishment and rewrite the U.S.-China relationship.

In case they have forgotten, the American people voted out Donald Trump and his foreign policy strategy. It’s time we invest in a new vision for U.S. foreign policy: one built on cooperation and diplomacy, not another arms race.

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