(Image: Li Gang)

The Pentagon’s top military command in the Asia-Pacific region is asking Congress to add nearly a billion dollars to its budget request to strengthen missile defences, bolster American allies and partners in the region, and to look at more robust forward bases for US troops to prepare for a possible military contingency in the region, according to internal budget documents obtained by Foreign Policy.

In total, US Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) is asking for almost US$890 million to be added to the Biden administration’s US$5.1 billion budget request for the Asia-focused command, including US$231 million in funding for air and missile defences at American military installations in Guam — within range of China’s improving rocket and missile forces — and US$114 million to improve robust US training ranges in Alaska and Hawaii in order to digitally link up with American forces conducting drills in the Western Pacific, which could someday extend to Washington’s allies in the region.

While the price tag for Indopacom’s request, known as an unfunded priority list, pales in comparison to what the military services put on their wish lists after the Biden administration’s budget drop, it would add back into the budget requests first made by outgoing Indopacom chief Admiral Philip Davidson, who spent his last days publicly pushing for a build-up of American assets west of the International Date Line to deal with a rapid Chinese military movement, such as against Taiwan.

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“The requests listed in the enclosure set the conditions to ‘seize the initiative’ by providing a pragmatic and viable approach that deters potential adversaries from unilaterally attempting to change the international rules based order, reassures allies and partners, and shapes the security environment,” US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral John Aquilino wrote in a letter sent to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and other congressional leaders on Friday. “The investments are less than 1% of the DoD’s total obligating authority, and are critical for deterring China’s decision calculus.”

The new US administration used its first few months in office to signal that President Joe Biden would be the first American president to solidify a long-promised pivot to Asia, after former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both ended up getting mired in the Middle East. But the push for additions to Indopacom’s budget is the latest sign that military officials and Congress are hoping to see the commander-in-chief do more to shift the focus of US foreign policy. The fear of another promised Asia pivot losing momentum has been made clear, current and former officials and congressional aides said, by the Pentagon’s decision to shift the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group from Japan to Afghanistan to aid in the US withdrawal, depriving American allies in China’s shadow of the lone carrier in the region.

The near-billion dollar request from Indopacom is also a sign that Aquilino will continue the tradition at the Hawaii-based military command of pushing the Pentagon for more military resources and US troops in the region if China makes a move against Taiwan, much to the delight of a bipartisan throng in Congress that has pushed Biden to give the command better radars, bases to disperse US forces, and more security assistance for American partners. Davidson, Aquilino’s predecessor in the job, had warned Congress that China could push to capture the island by 2027, the centennial of the People’s Liberation Army.

Congress designed the so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative, known as PDI, last year in an effort to add more US firepower in the first island chain that borders China in the Western Pacific, from Japan to the Philippines, hardened and dispersed American naval and air posts, and the forward deployments of F-35 fighter jets on a permanent or rotational basis. It was designed to be roughly the Asia-Pacific’s equivalent of a fund arranged by the Obama administration to solidify European allies after Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Yet the notion of moving more US forces forward has faced staunch opposition from the Pentagon’s analytical wing, which fears that American forces in the area would not survive a ranged missile attack from the PLA’s increasingly competent rocket and missile forces.

The European Defence Initiative “built the enabling infrastructure, the support infrastructure, to get us to a much, much better place in terms of maintaining deterrence against the Russians,” a congressional aide told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about ongoing budget negotiations. “And that’s what PDI was supposed to do for the Western Pacific.”

The Indopacom request also asks for US$88 million for new wargaming tools, US$60 million to build defence radars in Hawaii that could be operational as soon as 2023, US$68.2 million to build more forward US bases in the region, and US$130.6 million to build up allied US militaries in the region, the last of which only amounted to US$500,000 in Biden’s initial budget. That was to the chagrin of jilted congressional aides who saw efforts to build up US allies and partners as a key focus of the newly designed Asia fund, and expressed frustration that the request did not hew to what lawmakers asked for.

In a statement provided to Foreign Policy on Monday in response to questions about the PDI, Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood insisted that the Department of Defence’s ongoing review of the US military’s global footprint would include many of the requests that Davidson, the former Indopacom chief, made to Congress earlier this year.

But the brewing crisis over Taiwan has put renewed urgency on bringing more military might to bear for Biden’s Asia pivot, aides and officials said, as the administration has ramped up unofficial contacts with the island. China has sent fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on a daily basis for over a year in an effort to exhaust opposing pilots and aircraft, and the United States is carefully watching Chinese military drills get more coordinated and complex, such as by bringing in more naval and rocket forces.

“This is, at some level, rehearsing tactical strikes in and around Taiwan,” a senior defence official said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Find him on Twitter at @JackDetsch.

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