US lawmakers push for more money to counter China in Indo-Pacific

Democratic and Republican lawmakers will introduce legislation next week to get the White House to funnel more money to the Indo-Pacific region to help counter China.

Ami Bera, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, and Steve Chabot, the top Republican on the panel, hope their “Indo-Pacific Engagement Act” will bridge the gap between the rhetoric that Asia is the priority region and funding levels. .

President Joe Biden came to power promising to focus his foreign policy on China. But some experts worry the United States still isn’t matching its words with resources — a concern across multiple administrations that has been amplified this year as the United States has given billions of dollars to Ukraine.

“Going back to the Obama administration, we tried to make this pivot to the Indo-Pacific. We are getting there, but we are getting there very slowly,” Bera told the Financial Times. “We want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the strategic competition of the 21st century – the competition with China.”

The bill will require the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs — in coordination with the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs and the Bureau of East Asia U.S. Agency for International Development – submits an annual report to Congress outlining the resources needed. to achieve the goals of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the upcoming National Security Strategy. It is designed to give Asian officials a stronger voice in the debate over the appropriate level of funding for each geographic region.

“If we truly believe that China is the priority and the Indo-Pacific is where the future of the 21st century will be written, we need to match our rhetoric to our budgets. It’s as simple as that” , said Chabot, who added that it was “unconscionable” that the administration’s foreign aid and diplomacy budgets routinely treat Asia as “one of the least important regions.”

The proportion of the foreign operations budget allocated to the East Asia office, for example, has hovered between 3 and 5 percent over the past decade, according to the Congressional Research Service. In comparison, the budgets for Europe and Eurasia increased by 65% ​​during this period.

The bill echoes the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which was passed in 2020 to give the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees US military forces in Asia, greater say in the Pentagon’s budget process. .

Eric Sayers, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the PDI had started a “healthy debate” on defense priorities, but the United States needed to step up its diplomacy and aid to the defense. security. “Too often, we have let other priorities in Europe or the Middle East slip by. This trend of Asia’s second default must give way to a new framework for a comprehensive strategy to supply the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater.

Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top Indo-Pacific official, acknowledged this week that it was “valid criticism” that the United States had failed to match its rhetoric with dollars. He said the Biden administration was moving in the right direction and cited examples including a decision to open more embassies in the Pacific and money to fund coast guard initiatives.

“We’ve been to this rodeo before. We understand how things can be hijacked,” Campbell said at an event at CNAS, a think tank. “We will have to argue that . . . the lion’s share of the story is going to be played out in the Indo-Pacific, and we really need to take the necessary budgetary measures to reflect that in our activities.

The White House said in May it would invest $150 million in Southeast Asia to fund areas such as climate change and infrastructure. Critics said the sum was relatively small compared to the funds China is pumping into the region. At the CNAS event, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan dismissed the idea that the United States was not doing enough.

“We are really trying to foster a long-term economic relationship rooted in private sector investment, not massive cash transfers from the US Treasury to these countries. And that means taking relatively smaller sums of money and leveraging significant private sector investment to add billions and ultimately tens of billions of dollars,” Sullivan said.

Charles Edel, an Indo-Pacific expert at CSIS, a think tank, said the new bill would help address the fact that American America “has chronically underfunded our diplomacy in the Indo- Pacific while Beijing has devoted time, money and attention to its efforts over the past decade.”

CNAS Indo-Pacific expert Lisa Curtis said the United States was beginning to prioritize the Indo-Pacific in terms of military, economic and diplomatic budgets, but said it also needed to be clever in their approach. “When it comes to things like increasing funding for infrastructure needs in the region, the United States will never match China dollar for dollar, but the United States can leverage its private sector and provide things like technical assistance and training that countries in the region appreciate.”

A State Department official hailed the push for more Indo-Pacific resources and the bipartisan interest of Congress. But she said that unless lawmakers approve a larger overall budget, the effort to focus the Indo-Pacific in the legislation risked turning into a mere exercise.

But Bera stressed that the bill would intensify the focus on the need to fight China. “If we can shine the spotlight on this and maintain sustained pressure and focus on the Indo-Pacific, that will signal to the administration the urgency that Congress sees.”

Follow Demetri Sebastopulo on Twitter

Leave a Comment