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US defense bill spends big against China’s maritime claims

U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday signed into law an $886 billion defense bill that includes US$16 billion to deter China’s expansive maritime claims and approves exemptions for Australia and the United Kingdom to buy American defense technology without licenses.

The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act was passed by the Senate on Dec. 18 in a 87-13 vote and by the House on Dec. 19 in a 310-118 vote, after a compromise removed supplemental funding for Ukraine along with contentious abortion and transgender provisions.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, last week called the compromise “precisely the kind of bipartisan cooperation the American people want from Congress.”

Biden said on Friday that parts of the compromise “raise concerns” but that he was “pleased to support the critical objectives” of the bill.

The legislation “provides the critical authorities we need to build the military required to deter future conflicts, while supporting service members and their spouses and families,” Biden said.

Maritime deterrence 

The bill includes $14.7 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, well above the $9.1 billion requested by the Pentagon. The project, defense officials say, will help bolster U.S. defenses in Hawaii and the Pacific territory of Guam to increase “deterrence” efforts against China. 

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A fighter plane takes off from the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong in the Pacific Ocean, south of Okinawa, April 9, 2023. The Pentagon’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative will increase “deterrence” efforts against China. (Japan’s Ministry of Defense/AFP)

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and expert in naval operations, said the “big increase” in funds would help by “improving the resilience and capability of U.S. and allied forces in the Indo-Pacific.”

“I expect the increased PDI spending authorized in the NDAA will focus on defense of Guam, improved networking and data integration for U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, and accelerated efforts to posture U.S. ground troops in the region,” Clark told Radio Free Asia.

A further $1.3 billion is earmarked specifically for the Indo-Pacific Campaigning Initiative, which a Senate Armed Services Committee statement said would fund “increased frequency and scale of exercises, freedom of navigation operations, and partner engagements” as China ramps up its claims of sovereignty.

The 2024 bill also authorizes the biggest pay boost to military personnel in two decades, with a 5.2 percent overall bump, and increases the basic allowance for troops and housing subsidies.


It’s not only U.S. military bases and personnel in the Indo-Pacific that are receiving a large funding boost next year, though.

The 2024 bill also approves the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and exemptions for Australian and British firms from the need to seek licenses to buy U.S. defense technology. 

The two provisions – known as “Pillar 1” and “Pillar 2” of the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – have proved controversial, with some Republicans in Congress questioning Pillar 1 and some Democrats opposing Pillar 2.

Republicans expressed concerns about the ability of shipyards to supply Australia with submarines by the 2030s amid massive building backlogs that have left the U.S. Navy waiting on its own orders. 

The Virginia-class attack submarine New Mexico undergoes sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean, Nov. 26, 2009. (U.S. Navy via AFP)

Democrats, meanwhile, said they were worried that exempting Australian businesses from the need to seek licenses could open up an avenue for Chinese espionage to procure sensitive U.S. technology.

But in the end the provisions passed with bipartisan support – even if the important licensing exemptions remain conditional on Australia and the United Kingdom putting in place “comparable” export restrictions.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois and the ranking member of his party on the House Select Committee on China, said that the approval of both pillars of AUKUS would be a boon to U.S. efforts to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s maritime claims.

“By authorizing the sale of up to three Virginia-class submarines to Australia, and simplifying the process for sharing advanced technologies between our countries, we are taking an important step in strengthening key U.S. alliances and working to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region in the face of CCP aggression,” he said.

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said that the passage of AUKUS meant that Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are “on the precipice of historic reform that will transform our ability to effectively deter, innovate, and operate together.”

Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Kevin Rudd, said earlier this year he foresees a “seamless” defense industry across the AUKUS member states in coming decades if the security pact succeeds.

Other measures

The bill also establishes a new program to train and advise Taiwan’s military, and funds the Biden administration’s new “Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative,” which also is aimed at deterring China’s vast claims of maritime sovereignty.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner said earlier this month would equip American allies across Asia and the Pacific “with high-grade commercial satellite imagery that allows them to have much more visibility into their littorals.”

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner, seen at Senate hearing earlier this year, says the U.S. will give allies across Asia and the Pacific “high-grade commercial satellite imagery.” (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters)

Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin and the chairman of the House Select Committee on China, said the bill was suitably focussed on the biggest threats currently facing the U.S. military.

“We are in the window of maximum danger when it comes to a conflict with China over Taiwan,” Gallagher said after the House passed the bill. “Ensuring our military has the resources to deter, and if necessary, win such a conflict must be our primary focus in Congress.”