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How Trump’s ‘Historic’ Defense Spending Proposal Could Affect Asia

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Trans-Pacific View

How Trump’s ‘Historic’ Defense Spending Proposal Could Affect Asia

The Trump White House has big league plans for the U.S. military.

How Trump’s ‘Historic’ Defense Spending Proposal Could Affect Asia
Credit: Flickr/ US Navy

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration wants to significantly expand U.S. defense spending, following up on a frequently mentioned campaign promise by the president.

Trump announced on Monday that he would seek $54 billion from the U.S. Congress for military spending in the next fiscal year, a figure that if granted would represent a “historic” 9 percent increase in U.S. military spending, as Trump called it.

The increase, if granted, would amount to more than the total projected Russian military budget in 2018, which is expected to fall to 2.78 trillion by 2018, or $47 billion at current exchange rates.

The United States currently spends $584 billion on defense — by far the largest spender in the world, followed by China, which spends $143.7 according to its official figure and likely more unofficially.

The Trump proposal on the table right now would further seek to be revenue neutral by slashing spending by the same $54 billion from discretionary non-defense spending, which would include major cuts to large parts of the non-hard-power U.S. foreign policy apparatus, including the Department of State and U.S. foreign aid and assistance programs.

The White House’s budget request does not include any suggestions to cut U.S. mandatory spending on social programs, but would cut other non-defense discretionary spending for domestic agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.

A Confused and Unclear Announcement

In announcing the budget to state governors at the White House on Monday, Trump noted that the plan contained an “increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America.”

“This is a landmark event and message to the world in these dangerous times, of American strength, security and resolve. We must ensure that our courageous servicemen and women have the tools they need to deter war and when called upon to fight in our name, only do one thing: Win,” he added.

“We’re going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people,” Trump continued.

The strategic impetus for a 9 percent increase in defense spending was not discussed by the U.S. president in any specific terms. Curiously, Trump proposed the increase while criticizing his predecessors for spending nearly “$6 trillion” fighting wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Trump has long asserted that the U.S. military is “depleted” and that U.S. troops no longer “fight to win.”

“Win. We have to win. We have to start winning wars again,” Trump said on Monday.

“I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say that we never lost a war. ‘We never lost a war.’ You remember.”

During the campaign, Trump emerged as an early critic of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and similarly criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the performance of the U.S. coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

As Trump announced his proposal, a group of 120 retired U.S. generals wrote (PDF) congressional leaders expressing their support for non-defense agencies in U.S. foreign policy.

“We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone — from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability,” they wrote.

An Intensified Arms Race in Asia?

Of relevance to the Asia-Pacific, Trump is seeking to drastically expand the number of ships available to the U.S. Navy. During the campaign, Trump proposed a 350-ship fleet, increasing the size of the U.S. Navy from the current total of 272 ships.

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, released a 355-ship proposal in December. The Navy’s proposal represents the ideal size of the U.S. fleet for fulfilling the wide-ranging missions it is expected to undertake across the globe — and certainly in the Asia-Pacific.

Despite Trump’s plans for boosting spending and procuring more equipment for the U.S. Navy and other services, constraints in the U.S. defense industrial base will limit what can be accomplished over the president’s first term — with reelection far from a guarantee.

Regardless, Trump’s big spending plans will intensify the security dilemma between the U.S. and China, with the latter potentially seeing a sharp U.S. uptick in spending as an adequate cover to continue its own rapidly ongoing military expansion and modernization.

In recent years, along with its increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, China has been rapidly commissioning surface ships and submarines with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy. It has two aircraft carriers under construction to supplement its first currently.

A sharp increase in Chinese spending would feedback to the rest of the Asia-Pacific, where defense spending has grown at record post-Cold War levels in the last five years, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Nuclear Modernization Implications

Finally, Trump’s plans for a large military expansion could spill over into spurring longer term change for U.S. nuclear modernization. In recent weeks, Trump has lambasted the Obama-era New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia and called for an expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump noted in a December 2016 tweet. Last week, criticized the U.S. for falling behind on nuclear weapons, Trump added that he wanted to see the U.S. arsenal at the “top of the pack.”

Any significant expansion of the strategic U.S. nuclear arsenal and abrogation of existing arms control arrangements could not only spur an arms race with Russia, but encourage China to continue the expansion of its own nuclear arsenal. In particular, Beijing may see value in accelerating its development and deployed of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads.

While Trump has yet to specify what changes he’s seeking in this regard, the potential for both a conventional and nuclear arms race looms large.