December 11, 2020 | Insight

Taking on China – Breaking Down the FY21 NDAA

December 11, 2020 | Insight

Taking on China – Breaking Down the FY21 NDAA

At its core, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA), which passed the House on Tuesday by a veto-proof majority, seeks to strengthen deterrence initiatives involving China and to bolster regional confidence among like-minded partners in the Pacific. The legislation also rightly addresses the transnational security threat posed by Chinese malign influence operations and provides the next administration with a flexible framework with which to evaluate future national security investments outside of the Indo-Pacific and Africa.

Predictably, the Indo-Pacific features prominently in the NDAA’s 4,517 pages, with the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) serving as the bill’s centerpiece. This new program, contained in Section 1251, directs the secretary of defense to prioritize “activities to enhance the United States deterrence and defense posture in the Indo-Pacific region, assure allies and partners, and increase capability and readiness in the Indo-Pacific region.” As a starting point, the PDI aims to “improve the design and posture of the joint force in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily west of the international date line.”

The NDAA’s initial $2.2 billion down payment in the PDI emphasizes modernizing and strengthening the U.S. Air Force’s presence throughout the Pacific while also prioritizing new, innovative programs to evaluate flexible joint force operations in the coming decades. These initial funds, while limited, appear designed to spur broader strategic discussions within the Defense Department about right-sizing America’s military footprint in the region, with the tacit understanding that such investments will significantly increase in future years.

Beyond the PDI, the NDAA dramatically increases the U.S. government’s focus on scoping and countering China’s worldwide malign influence operations, particularly those occurring outside of traditional military spheres. These wide-ranging efforts include manipulating internal political and information environments to Beijing’s benefit as well as promoting opaque, corrupt economic deals that corrode democratic institutions and leave countries beholden to Chinese creditors. Such efforts play a key role in advancing China’s broader aims of subverting the rules-based international order and promoting favorable political conditions to buttress Beijing’s global ambitions.

To account for these emerging threats, the NDAA highlights China’s activities in international standard-setting bodies (Section 9414), where its diplomats are actively working to co-opt global standards for the next generation of technologies. The legislation also limits Defense Department funding for U.S. universities that host Confucius Institutes (Section 1062), owing to their role in suppressing campus protests against Chinese human rights violations.

Recognizing Beijing’s increasing willingness to engage in political interference operations, the NDAA also tasks the State Department and other U.S. government agencies with documenting the activities of China’s United Front Department (Section 1260G), which is responsible for overseeing the Chinese Communist Party’s broader influence platforms. The report also requests that the departments of Defense, State, and Commerce, as well as the U.S. National Academies and Government Accountability Office, prepare supplemental reports on a wide range of other China-related issues. These include Chinese money laundering activities (Section 6507), China’s activities at international standards bodies (Section 9414), China’s research and development efforts (Section 283), and China’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing schemes (Section 1260I).

The NDAA sets an ambitious timetable for the completion of these mandated reports, many of which will be due early on in the next administration. That said, the legislation’s most vaunted feature is its flexibility relative to other congressional authorization bills. In this case, Congress has provided the appropriate U.S. departments and agencies with the initial funding and tools needed to begin scoping the China challenge, but without bureaucratically hamstringing those efforts with highly specific program recommendations.

Moreover, in requesting these cross-cutting reports from multiple government agencies, Congress appears to be leveraging the NDAA as a bureaucratic forcing function, in essence requiring that disparate elements of the U.S. government open up their information holdings and collaborate on the China issue. Such measures are long overdue and likely to yield positive results, although consolidating these annual reporting requirements in a smaller number of annual or biennial due-outs would help reduce the administrative burden on the executive branch in the future.

The NDAA, if executed properly in the Indo-Pacific theater, also presents the U.S. government with a unique opportunity to hit the reset button in its whack-a-mole approach to the region. This approach has focused on responding to each and every Chinese provocation as opposed to methodically building up a credible and sustained deterrence posture.

On the one hand, the U.S. government’s interest in promoting freedom of navigation throughout the South China Sea, as well as Washington’s increased support for Taiwan, has exposed major vulnerabilities in China’s ability to police its near abroad. At the same time, most countries in the region remain wary about finding themselves in the middle of a military turf battle between Washington and Beijing.

For this reason, the Defense Department, in collaboration with the State Department, should allocate some PDI funds toward strengthening civil society and promoting democracy initiatives in the region. Such efforts should include a robust emphasis on augmenting host country capabilities to monitor and counter Chinese interference, including bribery schemes and other forms of political corruption. These measures should also include investing in legal and other due diligence resources to help vulnerable countries review the fine print of any potential infrastructure deals with China.

Lastly, and in light of China’s efforts to expand its footprint beyond Asia and Africa, Congress should consider funding future deterrence initiatives in other parts of the world. These areas include the Western Hemisphere, Central Asia, and even the Arctic, where China’s interests go well beyond economics and could potentially result in the establishment of scientific facilities with dual-use military applications. Command and control over these supplemental campaigns should ultimately rest with the Defense Department’s Office of Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, owing to its collective expertise on the China threat. However, input and coordination with regionally focused policy offices and combatant commands will be essential in monitoring local host government receptivity to China’s overtures.

The NDAA for fiscal year 2021 is the byproduct of thousands of man-hours, reflecting input from across the political and ideological spectrums. Its near-term passage bodes very well for the next administration’s broader efforts to confront China’s increasingly belligerent behavior, even if the devil is in the details.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and China Program. For more analysis from Craig, CMPP, and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy