The 2019 US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes the first defense budget initiated and guided by the Trump administration’s national security strategy and national defense strategy. Besides approving defense budgets, the act also promotes national government strategic planning and implementation. The act reflects that while the U.S. is still committed to a global defense strategy and posture, it gives priority to great power competition with China and Russia. The continued defense budget increases and their swift approval by Congress fulfills Trump’s campaign promise of large scale military buildup, presents a ‘window of opportunity’ for the defense industry and contractors. Regardless of U.S. domestic political turmoil, bipartisan support played a key role in the evolution of the 2019 NDAA, and contributes to long term U.S. strategy.
The U.S. military buildup intensifies the global and regional arms race. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has enjoyed military supremacy based on its military power from the Cold War. On the one hand, the US had security conflicts with Russia and China that periodically even generated security crises, but it used force primarily to deal with regional and transnational challenges, and handle great power relations through an integrated approach. On the other hand, Russia and China carried out their military modernization according to their security strategy, rather than rivalry with the U.S. As a result, the great power arms race was marginalized in the early post-Cold War era. However, the 2019 NDAA indicates that the U.S. is determined to use the increasing defense budget to offset growing Russian and Chinese military power. Besides speeding up innovations in artificial intelligence and other sectors, the U.S. decision makers and planners also emphasize the role of nuclear weapons, elevate the cyber command, and are preparing a space force command. Although catching up with the U.S. in a broad range of military capabilities is not a realistic option, those targeted by the U.S. military buildup need to respond, since they don’t want to return to the 1990s.
Although the Trump administration aims at getting rid of as many Obama administration legacies as possible, the NDAA indicates that it is just refilling the Obama era old wine of ‘Rebalancing’ into the new bottle of the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’. Regardless of the increasing defense budget, the U.S. is unlikely to achieve overwhelming dominance in the region in the forseeable future. As a result, the success of the strategy depends on the participation of regional actors. Many countries in the region feeling uncertain about the rise of China and welcoming a U.S. military presence is one thing, actively taking sides in great power competition is another. Regional actors understand that security challenges associated with the rise of China are different from those associated with the Soviet Union in continental Europe during the Cold War. In the past two years, while the successive U.S. administrations work on ‘Rebalance’ and ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategies, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan, the three U.S. treaty allies in Asia that have direct security conflicts with China, managed to reduce tensions and improve confidence building with China. Indian leaders also demonstrate statecraft by maneuvering between the U.S. and China. Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to say that as friend, the U.S. does not want anyone to choose between the U.S. and China.
The 2019 NDAA illustrates shocks in U.S.-China bilateral relations generated by U.S. political dynamics. First, the NDAA’s promotion of stronger U.S.-Taiwan security relations, a stronger presence in the South China Sea, and more barriers on China-U.S. military exchanges undermine past achievements on confidence building and crisis management, and further intensifies security competition in the West Pacific. Neither the U.S. military nor the Chinese military is interested in using military exchange programs, such as joint training and exercises to spy on and harm each other. The primary benefit to both sides is increasing mutual understanding and operational trust that reduce the chance of miscalculation and unfortunate incidents. Imposing constraints on these exchanges will make the two militaries strangers again, thus compromising existing crisis management mechanisms. Maintaining the ‘One China’ principle and opposing ‘Taiwanese independence’ is a precondition of stable China-US relations. Even when China was more vulnerable in the 1990s and 2000s, it was determined to confront the U.S. on the Taiwan issue. Therefore, a new wave of U.S. actions on Taiwan can definitely provoke stronger reactions. The evolution of the South China Sea issue in the past five years also suggests that China will not sit idle when its sovereignty and legitimate rights are challenged by others’ provocations.
Second, the U.S. increases perceptions of the Chinese threat to its national security beyond traditional geopolitical issues in the west Pacific. The NDAA calls for more monitoring, restrictions, and even countermeasures against China. In the twentieth century, war and superpower rivalry were major driving forces of U.S. global military deployment and operations. Nevertheless, in the early twenty-first century, the Chinese overseas military deployment and activities focus on the protection of Chinese overseas interest, such as security of sea lanes and providing security public goods through military operations, and international security cooperation, rather than great power competition. If China focuses on competition with the U.S., it should concentrate its available military forces within the west Pacific. Therefore, harping on Chinese global military operations only increases the burden and cost of U.S. global strategy.
Third, the NDAA also targets social and economic bonds in U.S.-China relations. At first glance, it might be useful: the U.S. relies on its superiority to roll back Chinese influence. The U.S. strategy against the Soviet Union did not have take into account social and economic interactions: therefore the U.S. could have sustainable development at home and deterrence, denial, and cost-imposition against the Soviets as long as the two sides were not involved in direct military conflict. The U.S.-China social, economic, and cultural interactions are extensive and benefit both countries. The delusion of current U.S. policy makers and their advisors is that they can weaken China whilst safeguarding and even expanding U.S. gains. Anyone familiar with Clausewitz’s ‘friction’ and ‘trinity of war’ can understand that actively undermining bilateral relations will send many things out of control. Finally, once U.S. perception and policy goes to extremes, it will seek to defeat anything that contributes to China’s rise, not only Chinese domestic institutions and modernization efforts, but also China’s international presence and other countries’ cooperation with China. Doing so would undermine the foundation of bilateral relations, undermine the stability and prosperity of many regions, and also cause more disappointment and failure in the end, because China has to safeguard its own institutions and development, and defend the rule-based international order.