US military seeks more funding for Pacific region after coronavirus pandemic

Senator Josh Hawley said the pandemic threatens to upend the status quo around the world, particularly in Asia.
Senator Josh Hawley said the pandemic threatens to upend the status quo around the world, particularly in Asia.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US military officials have outlined a spending request to bolster deterrence against China after the coronavirus pandemic ebbs, a sign of how national security leaders are already studying ways to shore up the country's standing in the Asia-Pacific region once the outbreak ends.

A report from the US Indo-Pacific Command, delivered to Congress last week, calls for US$20.1 billion (S$28.9 billion) in additional spending between 2021 and 2026.

The funds would be spent on new radar warning systems and cruise missiles, and would also pay for more exercises with allies, deployments of additional forces and new intelligence-sharing centres.

The efforts would help improve the US military's ability to deter the People's Liberation Army.

The request, which was first reported by Defence News, shows that many in the military believe tensions between the US and China are likely to grow amid the pandemic.

US President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China cut an uneasy peace in late March, each promising to dial back accusations of who was at fault for the spread of the virus, which is believed to have originated late last year at a market in Wuhan, China.

But US intelligence officials have said they expect tensions to flare again, and China to restart its efforts to deflect blame for the virus and spread disinformation about the US' role in its origin.

While Congress commissioned the report from the Indo-Pacific Command before the coronavirus plunged the world economy into chaos and heightened tensions between the US and China, current and former national security officials said the spending request was more relevant now.

China is sure to use the aftermath of the virus to try to strengthen its hold on the Pacific region, according to lawmakers. But the US will also have an opportunity to shore up its traditional allies.

The pandemic threatens to upend the status quo around the world, particularly in Asia, where the infections began, said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has advocated increased military funding for the Pacific region.

"China understands that the global pandemic is an inflection point," Hawley said.

 
 

"They are trying to turn this to their advantage. Make no mistake, they are still pursuing their global strategic ambitions. The need for us to laser focus on China's economic and military ambitions is going to be more urgent once we beat this pandemic, not less."

Some members of Congress and military strategists have long argued that the Pentagon needed to fund a deterrence initiative in Asia, akin to measures in Europe after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and began its war with Ukraine. The European funding paid for new military exercises, the deployment of forces to the Baltic States and Poland, and upgrades to logistic facilities, like ports.

Among the projects proposed in the report is a series of new intelligence-sharing centres. While the US has close intelligence ties with New Zealand and Australia, its partnerships with allies in Southeast Asia are more anemic. The new money would create a counterterrorism centre, an Oceania fusion center and other intelligence facilities.

Members of Congress and military strategists have argued that the threat of missiles from China has shown that the US needs to better disperse its forces in Asia, which are largely concentrated in South Korea and Japan.

 
 

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said in an interview that Iran's missile strikes on U.S. troops at bases in Iraq show the potential vulnerability of forces fixed in a single location.

The US needed to better defend its outposts in the Pacific, like Guam, with new radar and other military equipment, he said.

"This should provide a wake-up call for all Americans to increase defence investments in the Indo-Pacific," Gallagher said.

"Slogans that the Indo-Pacific is the Pentagon's top priority will remain just that - slogans - until the Pentagon puts resources behind the command."