The United States has spent $19 trillion on its military since the end of the Cold War. That is $16 trillion more than China spent and nearly as much as the rest of the world combined spent during the same period. Yet many experts think that the United States is about to lose a devastating war. In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, then the commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, warned that within the next six years, China’s military will “overmatch” that of the United States and will “forcibly change the status quo” in East Asia. Back in 2019, a former Pentagon official claimed that the U.S. military routinely “gets its ass handed to it” in war games simulating combat with China. Meanwhile, many analysts and researchers have concluded that if China chose to conquer Taiwan, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could cripple whatever U.S. forces tried to stand in its way.
It has become conventional wisdom that this gathering storm represents the inevitable result of Beijing’s rise and Washington’s decline. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. The United States has vast resources and a viable strategy to counter China’s military expansion. Yet the U.S. defense establishment has been slow to adopt this strategy and instead wastes resources on obsolete forces and nonvital missions. Washington’s current defense posture doesn’t make military sense, but it does make political sense—and it could very well endure. Historically, the United States has revamped its military only after enemies have exposed its weaknesses on the battlefield. The country may once again be headed for such a disaster.
To change course, the Biden administration must explicitly and repeatedly order the military to focus on deterring China and downsize its other missions. These orders need to be fleshed out and codified in the administration’s defense budget requests and in its National Defense Strategy. In addition, the administration should support the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a program that would plug holes in the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia. If the United States does not seize this chance to secure its military advantage over China, it may not get another.
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