Time for US Defense to Break the China Habit

Time for US Defense to Break the China Habit

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Time for US Defense to Break the China Habit

Weaning the U.S. defense industrial base from products critical to military equipment made in China is not merely necessary — it is crucial to U.S. national security. China’s behavior during the recent pandemic and Beijing’s threatening military operations in the South China Sea should prompt Washington and American businesses to distance themselves from the People’s Republic of China. The United States should under no circumstances have our defense industrial capability held hostage to the geopolitical vagaries of China’s aggressive worldview.

Several factors highly recommend moving away from China as a supplier of components for military hardware. In a comprehensive evaluation of the defense industrial base and supply chain, “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States,” requested by President Donald Trump in 2018, the message was clear. The United States faces a significant risk in having China provide the supplier base for weapons and equipment. The United States does not buy finished military hardware like planes, ships, and tanks from China. However, as the report explained:

“Through the ongoing globalization of industrial supply chains and commodities markets, a number of countries without formal supply agreements support the manufacturing and defense industrial base with items such as strategic and critical materials, commercial off-the-shelf products, electronics, and some defense components. Countries in this category include Kazakhstan, Singapore, Jamaica, and strategic competitors like China.”

So, how did we get into this situation? The fact is, in many ways, we did it to ourselves. For example, President Barack Obama’s administration lifted a ban on Chinese-made parts from being installed on U.S. weapons.

The New American published an online article by Alex Newman in 2014, “Obama Pentagon Waived Ban on Chinese Parts in US Weapons,” which illustrated the consequences of the United States opening opportunities for China to supply parts for our military equipment and weapons.  Newman made the point that “[a]ccording to the documents cited in news reports, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ investigative service, is probing at least three instances of Chinese-made parts being used in the F-35 program.” Confirming the Newman report, a CNBC business news story said:

“The Pentagon repeatedly waived laws banning Chinese-built components on US weapons in order to keep the $392 billion Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter program on track in 2012 and 2013, even as US officials were voicing concern about China’s espionage and military buildup.”

In August 2019, The National Interest published a story, “The F-35: Made in China? We Explain,” which described China’s involvement in the latest and most advanced ground-attack and air-to-air U.S. fighter, the F-35. The article observed that United Kingdom’s Sky News revealed a Chinese-owned company manufactures and supplies the circuit boards that “control many of the F-35’s core capabilities, including engines, lighting, fuel and navigation systems.”

At the time, the U.K. Ministry of Defense was quick to downplay the news, maintaining the manufacturer in question “presents no risks to the fighter.” But Sir Gerald Howarth, a former U.K. defense minister, offered a different point of view. Howarth warned, “We have been completely and utterly naive about the role of China, and it is only now that people are beginning to wake up.”

American industrial strength and military capability are grounded in technology, and maintaining technological dominance is fundamental to ensuring U.S. national security. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on military personnel in 2018, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin explained the danger of relying on China. He said, “The breadth and depth of Chinese malfeasance with regard not only to our technology but also to our larger economy and our nation is significant and intentional.”

Fast forward to the present and consider the lock China has on rare earth metals — critical in high-tech applications ranging from superconducting materials and magnets to specialty optics and lasers — and Beijing’s willingness to intimidate U.S. defense contractors. In a recent Defense News article, “What Will the US Defense Industry Do When China Cuts Off Rare Earth Supplies?,” Jeffrey Green noted that the Chinese state-controlled press blatantly threatened U.S. defense contractors, saying, “military equipment firms in the United States will likely have their supply of Chinese rare earths restricted.” And Beijing’s plan is to impose the restrictions “as soon as possible.” As Green pointed out, this is not a new situation. “For years, supply chain experts warned about the potential for China to cut off access to the critical materials found in almost every major weapon system, from fifth-generation fighters to precision-guided munitions.”

President Trump’s administration is taking steps to move defense needs out of the People’s Republic of China’s shakedown clutches. Andrea Shalal, Alexandra Alper, and Patricia Zengerle reported in their Reuters article, “US Mulls Paying Companies, Tax Breaks to Pull Supply Chains from China,” that “US lawmakers and officials are crafting proposals to push American companies to move operations or key suppliers out of China …”

The incentives would include new rules, favorable tax inducements, and “carefully structured subsidies.” According to Reuters, growing enthusiasm and “widespread” discussions favor ideas such as a “reshoring fund” that would encourage U.S. companies to rethink their business relationship with Beijing.

Working with several federal agencies, the State Department, in cooperation with foreign governments, is pushing to diversify American supply chains from China. Reuters quoted a State Department official as saying, “This includes returning manufacturing to the United States and expanding our base of international manufacturing partners.” Larry Kudlow, chief White House economic adviser, in an interview with Fox News, said recently, “We welcome any American companies in Hong Kong or China mainland; we will do what we can for full expensing and pay the cost of moving if they return their supply chains and their production to the United States.”

Over several decades, America has answered China’s siren’s song of lower labor costs and higher profits at home. But the price paid to have America’s national security held hostage and erosion of military technology is too high. We must bring our vital defense and high technology companies that service America’s industrial base back to U.S. shores. It’s a national imperative.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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Read more from Dave Patterson.

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