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Biden must stop using defense partnerships as an excuse to cut Pentagon spending

President Joe Biden welcomed Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to the White House Wednesday for an official state visit, the leaders’ most high-profile meeting, marking the two nations’ growing partnership in defense-technology sharing. 

But amid China’s growing defense spending, US hard power remains indispensable — so Biden shouldn’t be using such pacts as an excuse to cut the Pentagon budget.

The Australia-United Kingdom-United States deal to provide Down Under nuclear-powered subs and jointly develop defense technology — a pact known as AUKUS — is a terrific example of democratic allies working together to support one another’s interests. 

Well-respected former State Department policy planner Charles Edel laid out in Foreign Affairs “The AUKUS Wager,” a bet that “enhancing Australian and British capabilities will cause the overall regional balance of forces and power to reach a more favorable and sustainable footing, resulting in collective deterrence.”

In other words, the wager is that fusing force structures together as tightly as possible can make them sufficiently unitary and focused so that they together serve as a pillar of great-power deterrence.

This should be an obvious and valuable outcome of the new alliance, but two key dynamics place that progress at great risk.

First, we’ve been drastically underestimating China’s defense spending, making deterrence in the Indo-Pacific much more challenging in the years to come than previously imagined.

The US Senate — based on reports from the intelligence community — assesses Chinese defense spending is actually closer to $700 billion than to the $230 billion China’s 14th National People’s Congress communicated in March.

That puts China’s military expenditure close to parity with America’s official defense budget of $877 billion.

Plus, as the American Enterprise Institute reports, the Chinese and US militaries place very different emphases on where defense dollars go.

In terms of purchasing-power parity, for example, an entry-level People’s Liberation Army soldier makes $108 a month, about 16 times less than his American counterpart’s $1,900.

As AEI notes, “Where Beijing saves on compensation, it can make up for in ships, planes, missiles and other armaments.”

AUKUS does not represent net new deployable force for America and her British and Australian allies, and so its industrial and technological benefits need to be carefully compartmentalized versus its deterrent value against a rapidly growing Chinese military that places much more emphasis on kinetic teeth than human-resource tail.

Second, AUKUS should not become a justification for US defense-spending cuts — but unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in Washington.

While Biden has argued AUKUS represents “more partnerships and more potential” that can produce “more peace and security in the region,” he’s also aggressively cutting Pentagon spending in real terms under cover of such multilateral engagements.

The United States and its democratic allies are woefully under-armed, with NATO’s total complement of main battle tanks merely on par with China’s.

The US Navy deploys just over 300 warships; China deploys 400.

If the democratic community is not careful, its success in developing new “minilateral” initiatives, like the valuable Indo-Pacific Quad and AUKUS, could seduce it into feeling an increased sense of security where none should exist, especially in the face of increased Chinese military outlays, military-industrial output and regional aggression.

It is also significant that Canada, whose laggard defense spending and lack of attention to Arctic security represent an increasing liability on America’s northern border, is absent from these minilateral initiatives. 

While multilateral intelligence-and-technology sharing initiatives have a vital role to play in the defense of the democratic community, no multilateral agreement can replace the value of US hard power.

American ships, planes and troops underwrite global freedom of navigation and the rules-based international order in finance and international law. 

Conspicuous, prohibitive, globally omnipresent US and allied hard power remains the world’s best hope for preserving democracy and permitting its extension to those nations and peoples who yearn for it.

AUKUS is a terrific initiative. The tricky bit will be remembering what it isn’t.

Matthew Bondy is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Canada’s leading public-policy think tank.