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China's bold behavior borders on aggression and must be checked

China's bold behavior borders on aggression and must be checked
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Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses Defense bill moves to formal negotiations with Confederate name fight looming Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' MORE (R-Texas), previously chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and now its ranking member, has produced a draft bill entitled the “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative” that would “direct the Secretary of Defense to strengthen the United States commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific region.” Thornberry, long recognized as a leading thinker on national security issues, is seeking to create a parallel to the European Deterrence Initiative, which the Obama administration created to bolster NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression in Europe. 

Thornberry’s proposal would do the same in Asia. It would “enhance United States presence and prepositioning, allow for additional exercises, improve infrastructure and logistics, strengthen ally and partner interoperability,” and, most important, “demonstrate … commitment to Indo-Pacific nations to address specific operational challenges … especially vis-à-vis China.”

Thornberry’s initiative could not come at a more timely moment. Even as nations throughout the globe are reeling from the effects of the coronavirus, Beijing has been exploiting the epidemic for its own political ends. A recent article by Peter Jennings — one of Australia’s leading national security analysts who served as deputy secretary for strategy in his country’s Department of Defence and now is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute — describes in great detail the extent of China’s nefarious activities throughout East Asia.

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“Beijing,” writes Jennings, “is using the virus to position itself as the savior of much of the world, sending medical equipment and doctors, building political indebtedness, and loudly claiming that authoritarianism is doing a better job of beating the virus than the U.S. and many democracies.” Jennings’ last point is especially noteworthy: China’s claim about the superior virtues of its system is an echo of its assertion that, unlike Western democracies, its autocratic system enabled it to withstand the effects of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

At the same time as it purports to come to the aid of countries wracked by the virus, Beijing has ramped up its longstanding anti-Taiwanese rhetoric and the scope of its military operations with regard to Taiwan and throughout the region. Jennings notes that, on March 16, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft “for the first time conducted nighttime combat drills southwest of Taiwan.” He points out that only a few days later a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese destroyer in what Beijing claimed was its coastal waters, contradicting Tokyo’s insistence that the incident took place on the high seas. 

On March 25, PLA surveillance aircraft penetrated South Korean airspace, causing Seoul to scramble its jets in response. Jennings also observes that the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning has been conducting flight operations for the past month in the South China Sea. Finally, he rightly asserts that, despite U.S.-Japanese Freedom of Navigation exercises in the South China Sea, “Beijing’s increased military activities are meant … to contrast with the challenges the U.S. Navy is facing in maintaining a viable presence in the western Pacific.” He cites as an example the travails of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, where more than 600 crew members tested positive for COVID-19.   

Thornberry’s draft bill represents a response to these and other cases of Chinese assertiveness that increasingly border on aggression. He proposes allocating just over $6 billion in fiscal year 2021 to support his initiative, together with annual reports to Congress beginning in fiscal year 2022 that would outline planned expenditures to fund “presence and force lethality … prepositioning and logistics … infrastructure … strengthening allies and partners in the region … exercises and training … and procurements.” 

The congressman’s proposal by no means is a hysterical overreaction based on anti-Chinese bias. Instead, it simply recognizes the reality that Beijing is not going to sit still while waiting for Washington to get its act together in response to the coronavirus public health crisis. China’s behavior is no fiction and it requires an immediate response. Thornberry’s draft is a good place to start.   

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.