President Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy has strong bipartisan support
In the rush of events that have cascaded through Washington, D.C., over the last three months, one remarkable milestone deserves a second look. On Jan. 1, 2021 — just a few days before the insurrection at the Capitol, in the final hours of the 116th Congress of the United States — the U.S. Congress added one more plot twist to the record books of the Trump presidency when huge, bipartisan majorities in the U.S. House and Senate voted for the first time ever to override a Donald Trump veto. This striking act of independence by the legislative branch was summoned up for the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which President Trump petulantly nixed.
Enactment of the NDAA by veto-override preserved a 60-year record by Congress to provide yearly direction and funding for the U.S. defense policy. Much of the 4,000-page bill is focused on military “quality of life” issues, like hazardous duty pay, health care benefits, housing, and child care for military families. The need to support an all-volunteer force with these bread-and-butter provisions is one of the fundamental reasons that the last Congress overcame its chronic, paralyzing polarization, and exercised the Article 1 power of the Constitution to override the president’s badly miscalculated veto.
There are many other components of this year’s bill beyond support for the troops, including bolstering U.S. cybersecurity and Navy shipbuilding, which many of us on the Armed Services Committee have a deep interest in and were anxious to advance. Another high priority was defense strategy, which is front and center to the foreign policy of the Biden administration — namely in the Indo-Pacific region. Over the last six years, as U.S. involvement in the Middle East has ebbed, and the blindingly obvious need to truly pivot to Asia has grown, the 2021 NDAA is a vehicle that provides for an intelligent reset of U.S. defense policy.
Most prominently, the bill creates the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, laying out a new $2.2 billion program that realigns American defense assets to better collaborate with partners like Japan, New Zealand, India, Singapore, and Australia to name a few. It dovetails with an earlier, parallel Act of Congress — the Asia Reassurance Initiative of 2019 — that endorsed U.S. participation in multilateral approaches in the region on issues like climate change, energy, trade, democracy, and the rule of law. The intent of both measures is not to enflame tension, but rather to bolster our democratic allies and reassert a rules-based order, whether it involves human rights, natural resources, or the freedom of navigation at sea or by air.
The NDAA’s Deterrence Initiative is designed to support those goals by restoring — alongside our allies in ASEAN — a credible balance of military power, which has clearly eroded during the era of Middle East interventions. This neglect allowed extralegal claims of territorial waters and airspace by China that were repudiated by a United Nations tribunal in 2016 to fester, and the Pacific Deterrence Initiative demonstrates bipartisan congressional resolve to support our allies who are feeling the brunt of that escalating aggression. Just a week ago, in his departing testimony as INDOPACOM Commander, Admiral Philip Davidson strongly embraced the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, and indeed called for sizing it up over the next five fiscal years.
Another strategic provision of the NDAA is aimed at securing a reliable supply chain for critical minerals that desperately needs to be diversified. China’s methodical, decades-long effort to dominate the market for minerals like cobalt, lithium, antimony, zircon, and titanium has clearly succeeded, leaving the U.S. and its allies at the mercy of a competitor whose intentions are at-best enigmatic, if not adversarial. These materials are vital to the technology that operates advanced defense aerospace and maritime platforms, as well as civilian devices like iPhones.
Congress addressed this issue in this year’s NDAA Section 848, which instructs the Department of Defense “to eliminate the dependence on vulnerable sources of supply […] of strategic and critical minerals by 2035.” The section also certifies that critical minerals located within “the national technology and industrial base” (a legal definition that includes, among other countries, Australia) are deemed reliable. This section originated from direct interaction between members of Congress and officials in Australia in 2019, who appreciate the risk of over-dependence on Chinese suppliers of these essential materials.
Given the large deposits of these minerals in Australia, and the willing and able support for its mining by the Australian government, the potential for diversification of supply clearly exists. Section 848 provides an elegant path forward, leveraging the strong, enduring U.S.-Australia alliance, and asserts a U.S. government pledge and deadline for production, rather than a wishful hope that private investment will bear all the risk of challenging China’s cartel on these resources. More work needs to be done to flesh out this policy, but section 848 is a bold first step.
As the curtain came down on the 116th Congress back on Jan. 1, the veto override and enactment of the 2021 NDAA displayed a positive vital sign for the continuity of our republic, and its commitment to our friends and allies who support democratic values and the rule of law. As President Biden forcefully stated just recently, the overarching struggle today is between forces of “democracy versus autocracy.” The bipartisan override of Donald Trump’s veto of the 2021 NDAA was a powerful statement of American resolve to rise above partisanship and win that struggle.
Courtney is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, and the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Friends of Australia Caucus.
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