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Joe Biden isn’t known for his austerity, except when it comes to the nation’s defense.
As part of his welcome emphasis on competition with China, the president cajoled reluctant European countries at the G-7 summit into releasing a statement critical of China, on top of the announcement of an infrastructure program meant to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
That’s all fine as far as it goes, but a glaring omission from Biden’s campaign is a defense budget that reflects the growing challenge from Beijing.
Indeed, Biden justifies almost any increased domestic spending as designed to check China’s ambitions, at the same time he neglects what is most needful to keep China from dominating its region and waging war on our allies or perhaps the U.S. itself.
If we can deter China from taking Taiwan with subsidies for electric cars, Biden is inarguably the Churchill of his time.
If we can counter China’s defense buildup with more funding for affordable housing, Biden deserves to take his place beside Alfred Thayer Mahan or George Kennan as a great strategic thinker.
Otherwise, his approach is lacking, and disturbingly so.
Biden’s infrastructure plan, a sprawling proposal that would spend $2.3 trillion on everything from roads and bridges, to affordable housing, to elder care, is about the “global competition with China,” the president insists.
By Biden’s way of thinking, whatever progressives have wanted to do for years is suddenly a priority in the new Cold War. The left-wing “explainer” website Vox now claims, “Improving domestic infrastructure and investing in new and emerging technologies, especially clean energy technology, is the best way the US can challenge China for supremacy on the world stage.” The publication quoted a Democratic congressional aide, “The best way to enact a progressive agenda is to use China [as a] threat.”
There are indeed areas of advanced technology that we need to invest in, especially semiconductors and artificial intelligence (a $250 billion Senate bill passed last week is an imperfect step in this direction), but it’s not true that we can simply windmill our way to victory over China.
Although you might miss it listening to Biden, there are threats from China that don’t involve infrastructure spending or clean-energy initiatives.
China has been growing its annual defense spending by more than 6 percent a year.
It has now surpassed the U.S. and technically has the largest navy in the world.
It is on pace to double its nuclear weapons over the next decade.
It has flown hundreds of sorties near Taiwan this year, and a top U.S. admiral warns that it could invade in the next six years.
Given all that, one might expect the open-handed Biden to invest substantially in a stronger, more advanced U.S. military, but his profligacy doesn’t extend so far. His defense budget increases spending by about 2 percent, which won’t even keep up with inflation.
This doesn’t come close to what we realistically need. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley said at a U.S. Naval Institute event late last year that “we’re going to have to have a much larger fleet than we have today, if we’re serious about great-power competition and deterring great-power war.” He called for a 3–5 percent increase in the budget every year but didn’t think that was plausible because of fiscal constraints (little did he know the $6 trillion blowout to come in every other area of the budget).
We should be spending more on defense, and spending differently. With an eye to deterring conflict with China, we need to recalibrate in a serious way to focus on advanced technologies and weapons systems for the Navy and Air Force, and in space. Hypersonics, directed energy, and control of the electromagnetic spectrum should be particular priorities.
Biden has no excuse for not pursuing this. It’s not as though he can say we can’t afford it.