US military reach in the Pacific dwindles long-term

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As Chinese officials begin to assemble a range of policy protocols to parry Washington’s political initiatives aimed at decoupling Beijing’s long-term relations with Pyongyang, Beijing needs a tutorial on the current political limits of Washington war aims, because the US congressional budget remains Ground Zero for Chinese officials as they gauge Team Trump’s resolve to envelop North Korea through Beijing.

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When US Defense Secretary James Mattis was confirmed, he often spoke of a dual challenge underwriting any US effort at policy implementation. Revealing that the US had a fiscal problem and a credibility problem, Mattis excoriated the previous administration of Barack Obama for hollowing out the military in favor of domestic programs.

Turning the US political economy away from market-based consumption, Team Obama’s writ remained social engineering financed by budget gimmicks that still hamper US efforts abroad. The current military budget funds US “overseas contingency operations” (OCO) as part of a continuing resolution. However, neither can address the long-term needs required for the US to prevail against China.

When President Donald Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, he funded military operations at US$700 billion, exceeding the budget control cap, a congressional spending limit on national defense, by $85 billion. Any bill that exceeds the cap triggers a sequester. Until the US Congress returns to policy clarity regarding pervious limitations on military funding abroad, Washington is permanently hindered from long-term geopolitical engagement.

How this is significant

The source of war is stoked by domestic variables. Unless one is intimately accustomed with the domestic ethos animating a competitor, contrived rhetoric will often override governing institutions. Acknowledging particular fiscal, monetary, even social barriers to conflict supplants the determinism that anchors fallacies of groupthink. The Thucydides trap isn’t foreordained, because there are limits to US hegemony abroad.

What contours should Chinese leaders look toward as they anticipate US posture in the Western Pacific? US allies remain limited in their reach and temperament toward Beijing, but by any measure China leads in its ability to control the tempo of any near-term engagement with Team Trump. Watch congressional reticence re-emerge throughout the approaching midterm elections as ranking members dither on applying the president’s cuts to state and foreign aid.

Given how Team Trump remains indebted to majorities in the House of Representatives, this will constrain his ambitions abroad. Heading toward the 2018 mid-terms, he will find it difficult to sustain any robust cuts to the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, Treasury or Health and Human Services. Until Congress returns to fiscal-policy clarity or the Republican Party dominates the mid-terms, initiatives abroad remain constrained.

For Team Trump to win in its immediate engagement with China, majorities in the House must either break the parity between defense and non-defense spending increases, set unrealistic expectations for 2019 budget caps, or rely heavily on OCO spending. To succeed, this president will need to show progress among reticent allies while rebuilding the US economy domestically.

The only relief the White House has is revealed in easily caricatured enemies abroad, an emerging domestic consensus seeking permanent reduction of the administrative state, and defense-leadership testimony that military budgets must grow to accommodate international threats.

Team Trump will remain constrained throughout 2018 as congressional budgets sag under unconstitutional constraints, coupled to dominant media seeking spending victories for a minority party. Having these twin enormities curtail Team Trump may mean a reckoning of higher rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington. 

Without a permanent rebuttal of the Budget Control Act that in effect sustains a minority-party veto, Team Trump is beholden to partial political majorities in the House. To break free, Trump needs a black swan event to galvanize his leadership. Will Beijing deliver?

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