Washington, DC – Months after US President Joe Biden’s administration pulled the last American troops out of Afghanistan as part of his promise to end the country’s “forever wars“, the United States Congress approved a $777.7bn defence budget, a five percent increase from last year.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed the budget legislation on Wednesday in an 89-10 vote, following the US House of Representatives, which approved the legislation last week.
While the measure was welcomed by leading members of the Democratic and Republican parties as a bipartisan achievement, progressive legislators and advocacy groups are questioning the budget’s enormous price tag – and criticising policymakers who have justified it by pointing to intensifying competition with China.
“For the last 20 years, we heard that the terrorist threat justified an ever-expanding budget for the Pentagon,” said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War, a Washington, DC-based group that advocates for a more progressive American foreign policy.
“As the war in Afghanistan has ended and attention has shifted towards China, we’re now hearing that that threat justifies it,” Miles told Al Jazeera.
Several US legislators cited countering China as a top priority in the defence budget, formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Congresswoman Elaine Luria, a conservative Democrat, said on Twitter on December 7 that the legislation “makes critical investments in our national defense, and takes important steps to counter the threat of a rising China”.
In some cases, the push to focus on China took a more alarmist tone. “The threat that the Chinese military poses is not a distant threat; it’s not something that might happen in 2030, 2035 or some time in the future,” top Republican Senator Jim Inhofe said in April, warning against cuts to defence spending. “It’s a problem we face today. Right now. It only gets worse over time,” he said.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured amid numerous points of tension in recent years, including a trade war during Donald Trump’s presidency and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Chinese government has slammed US relations with Taiwan, an autonomous island that China considers its own, and rebuked Washington’s attempts to deepen alliances with its neighbours, including a recent effort to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
Meanwhile, the US has accused China of committing “genocide” against Uighur Muslims in the country’s western region of Xinjiang, and Washington recently announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, citing “egregious” Chinese human rights abuses.
But officials from both countries say they are trying to cooperate on common challenges such as global warming and COVID-19 vaccinations, while managing the competition to avoid further tensions.
Still, the Biden administration explicitly cited China when making a $753bn defence budget request in May. “To defend the nation, the Department in this budget takes a clear-eyed approach to Beijing and provides the investments to prioritise China as our pacing challenge,” Deputy Secretary Of Defense Kathleen Hicks said at that time.
Congress ended up giving the Biden administration about $24bn more than it asked for, taking annual defence spending above its most recent peak of $740bn reached in Trump’s final year in office.
But the NDAA’s passage in the Senate this week spurred protests from progressives who have been calling for decreasing US military spending in order to free up more funds for domestic priorities.
The US is by far the largest military spender in the world, with a Pentagon budget totalling more than double what Russia and China combined allocate to defence annually.
“We ended the longest war in US history, yet Congress just passed a $768 BILLION defense budget — more than the military budgets of the next 11 countries combined,” Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
“Don’t tell me we can’t afford to fight poverty, cancel student debt, pass paid leave, and defeat the climate crisis.”
Earlier this year, left-wing Senator Bernie Sanders said many of his colleagues do not seem concerned about the deficit and the national debt when it comes to military spending – issues they invoke when opposing spending on social programmes.
“People sleeping out on the street; people dying because they don’t have any healthcare; Kids unable to get the early childhood education they need – ‘not a problem, can’t afford to pay for those things’,” Sanders said in a speech on the Senate floor on October 17.
“But somehow when it comes to the defense budget and the needs of the military-industrial complex, we just cannot give them enough money.”
Others pointed out that the NDAA was approved with bipartisan support in Congress at the same time that Democratic leaders are struggling to pass Biden’s House-approved Build Back Better social spending agenda in the Senate.
That piece of legislation, which would expand the social safety net, provide funds to combat the climate crisis and secure universal pre-school for children, is priced at $1.75 trillion over ten years, an average of $175bn annually – a fraction of the defence budget.
“The $768 billion defense bill that the Senate just passed is a full $30 billion more than even Trump requested for the military in his last budget,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “And it’s 4x the size of the Build Back Better bill. Yet nobody asks ‘how are you going to pay for it?’”
But supporters of defence spending argue that the US military should be a priority in a world where China – and to a lesser extent, Russia – are on the rise.
They note that China has been increasing its military budget, reaching $209bn in 2021 in a nearly 7 percent uptick from the year before. While that amount is still far below the American defence budget, foreign policy hawks in Washington say Beijing gets more for its money because of lower pay for workers and cheaper material costs.
The US defence bill itself contains numerous China-specific provisions, as well as increased funding for research, development, test and evaluation (RDTE) that is seen as an effort to modernise the military to counter Chinese technology. The NDAA also requires Biden to develop a “grand strategy” towards Beijing.
The Department of Defense’s pivot towards focusing more on China can be traced back to the 2018 National Defense Strategy; a document produced every four years that outlines the Pentagon’s priorities.
“As China continues its economic and military ascendance … it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future,” the 2018 report reads.
William Hartung, a writer and researcher on defence matters, said Washington’s issues with China are mainly political and economic. “I don’t think it’s primarily a military threat. But that seems to be a major part of the US strategy, which I think is misguided,” Hartung told Al Jazeera in an interview in October, after the House approved the first version of the legislation.
He added that none of the outstanding problems between Washington and Beijing has a military solution that would justify increasing defence spending, and warned that a military confrontation with China – a nuclear power – could be an “unprecedented catastrophe”.
“There’s got to be more space for substantive debate about what actually defends the country,” Hartung said. “And that’s been a hard sell in the Congress so far.”