Congress fires a warning shot to China with defense budget

Congress recently approved the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes $717 billion in defense spending for the 2019 fiscal year.

One thing the legislation makes very clear is that most U.S. lawmakers share the view of the White House and the Pentagon, as formulated in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, that great power competition with a revisionist China is one of the top challenges the nation faces in the years ahead.

The bill casts a wide net in seeking to meet that challenge, noting it “requires the integration of multiple elements of national power, including diplomatic, economic, intelligence, law enforcement, and military elements.” 

{mosads}To combat Chinese economic espionage and technology transfers, for example, the NDAA expands the purview of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and requires the Department of Defense to include espionage efforts in its annual report to Congress on Chinese military power.


To push back against Beijing’s influence operations in the United States, it prohibits the Pentagon from funding Chinese language instruction at universities that host a Confucius Institute, which are operated by an arm of the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The bill also urges closer security ties with Taiwan and India and reiterates commitments to existing U.S. allies in the region. It also takes several modest, but potentially important, steps to push the administration toward a more effective strategy to counter Chinese coercion in the disputed South China Sea.

First, the NDAA reauthorizes the Obama-era Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (rebranded the “Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative”) through 2025.

This program was first announced in 2015 to boost the capabilities of China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia with an eye to keeping them from being entirely pushed out of contested waters by Beijing’s massive campaign of island-building and militarization.

The program initially promised $425 million in equipment and training over five years, primarily to the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, though other Southeast Asian partners and Taiwan were included as well.

The 2019 NDAA adds Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India to the list of countries that are eligible for support, but the focus will likely remain on the South China Sea claimants to send a message that Washington doesn’t intend to abandon them in the face of Chinese bullying.

Second, the legislation seeks to make China’s exclusion from the biennial U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise permanent. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis disinvited China from RIMPAC 2018, which involved ships from more than two dozen nations, saying Beijing’s militarization and coercion of neighbors in the South China Sea were “inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise.”

The NDAA bans the Pentagon from reversing that decision until China ceases all land reclamation in the South China Sea (which it largely has), establishes a “four-year track record of taking actions toward stabilizing the region,” (which it eventually could), and removes all weapons from its expanded outposts in the Spratlys and Paracels (which it won’t).

The bill allows the secretary of defense to waive those requirements in the interests of U.S. national security, which opens the possibility that China could eventually be invited back even without fully reversing its military build-up, but doing so without sparking a fight with Congress will clearly require a serious change in Chinese behavior.

Third, the NDAA requires the Pentagon to submit reports to Congress and the public documenting Chinese escalations in the South China Sea. The secretary of defense is to prepare these reports “immediately” after China undertakes new reclamation or militarization or asserts any new claims in the South China Sea.

Naturally, the bill allows the secretary to waive this requirement if issuing the report would damage national security (for instance, by revealing U.S. intelligence sources or methods).

Ultimately it will be up to the Pentagon to recognize the value in increasing the reputational costs of China’s bad behavior by bringing its actions to light rather than fall back on the bureaucratic tendency to over-classify. But if robustly implemented, this requirement could have a real impact.

Private outfits like the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative have already shown that publishing commercial satellite imagery and other data can raise domestic and international awareness of Chinese actions.

These models are clearly what the NDAA has in mind with its mandate that each Pentagon report should include “one or more corresponding images” of the Chinese developments in question. 

The steps mandated by the NDAA won’t by themselves be enough to prevent further Chinese coercion and violations of international law in the South China Sea.

But with the administration having so far failed to articulate a South China Sea policy beyond freedom of navigation operations and capacity building programs (both necessary, but insufficient to the task), Congress is sending a signal that it hasn’t forgotten the maritime disputes or the U.S. partners caught up in them, and it expects the White House and Pentagon to do more.

Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS).

Tags Asia China–United States relations Exercise RIMPAC Geography of Asia National Defense Authorization Act South China Sea Southeast Asia Territorial disputes of China

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