The Bridge: The Pentagon That Cried Foreign Threat

Today we’re talking about the new (but familiar) arms race that is dominating the headlines — and bloating the defense budget.

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The quote-unquote China threat

Last month, Congress finally made headway on the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that sets the Pentagon’s annual budget. The House and the Senate tacked on an additional $45 billion to President Joe Biden’s proposed budget, bringing the grand total to $858 billion in authorized defense spending. A big focus in the budget request? The necessity of “keeping pace with China.

For years, the media has been sounding the alarm about China’s rise through the ranks of global powers. The fear is that China will use its newfound wealth to build a military more powerful than our own and, using force, surpass America as the global superpower. This hunch has been fueling a new-age arms race. But does the “China threat” even hold water?

In this edition:

  • China is playing defense
  • And the U.S. is playing offense
  • But one-upmanship is a losing game

In a new report, POGO Senior Defense Policy Fellow Dan Grazier argues that, no, the “China threat” does not hold water. The U.S. has been using threat inflation tactics to justify Pentagon budget increases for decades.

China Threat Inflation and America’s Nonsensical Plans

Challenging the China threat

Let’s start with an obvious truth. It is incontestable that China is a power player on the world stage. The country has seen massive economic growth for four decades. But a rise in wealth does not automatically foreshadow a plot to wield military power. Other countries do not prioritize defense spending the way the U.S. does.

Chinese leaders have increased military spending in the last couple decades, but their purchases look quite different from ours — things like lower-cost, smaller weapons that are not built for conquering or expansion, but focus instead on defense, protecting the waterways where China conducts its supply-chain business.

Dan goes into detail on the ways China’s weapons differ greatly from the Pentagon’s offense-oriented weapons in the report. He writes that, although it may be true that China wants to surpass the United States as a global superpower, the nature of China’s weapon stockpiles indicates that “it is highly unlikely they will use military means to accomplish that goal.”

Media fearmongering

But that’s not what you would think from reading the headlines. There’s been consistent messaging about the fear of China’s burgeoning military power and a rise in the use of the terms “China challenge,” “rising China,” and the “China threat” in the press.

Inflating China Threat to Balloon Pentagon Budget

That alarmism has significant impact. I learned in a recent edition of The Bunker that 75% of Americans now view China as an enemy, a statistic that’s been drastically increasing in recent years. Also coinciding with the increase in press mentions is an increase in military spending. The fearmongering has been used to justify the U.S. spending more and more to one-up and “outcompete” the apparent Chinese military expansion.

The foreign threat toolkit

Dan calls threat inflation the “go-to tool” for bolstering the Pentagon’s budget.

This tactic should feel familiar. For the better part of the last century, different foreign threats have emerged in the public’s awareness when there was a high chance of a plunge in the Pentagon’s budget. It happened after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Now, just after the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan, the fear of a “China threat” has taken hold — a justification for an increase in military spending right at the moment the budget would’ve decreased.

Whereas most of us, China and the U.S. included, stand to lose a lot in the face of an actual “China threat,” the defense industry thrives and financially benefits from war — and even from the mere threat of war.

My colleague, POGO National Security Analyst Mark Thompson, charted the path this fearmongering takes in last week’s edition of The Bunker. Recently, the Pentagon released a 174-page report on the “China threat,” breaking down China’s alleged plans for invasion, modernization, and military expansion before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. The report caused quite a stir. Just days later, the Pentagon launched a new stealth bomber (costing roughly $750 million each). Much of the coverage of the launch celebrated the weapons’potential to counter the “Chinathreat.”

Read Mark’s analysis in The Bunker

But, as Dan argues, the U.S. approach to China is off-base. The U.S. is recklessly spending money to one-up China when it needs to focus instead on ways to deter aggression should such a scenario arise. The Pentagon’s current posture toward China will only serve to line the pockets of defense contractors, not prioritize the safety of the American people.

No winners in war 

What is desperately needed is a rational assessment of China's military and a realistic budget. Most importantly, we need to think critically about the consequences of inflating those threats, as we are doing now.

Dan warned in an op-ed earlier this week, “It would be nearly impossible to contain such a conflict [between the United States and China] beneath the nuclear threshold.” In a situation like that, we’re all losers — and no amount of inflation to the Pentagon’s budget can counteract that.

Read Dan’s report on