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Pentagon Says Record Defense Budget Is Necessary To Compete With China

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Amid mounting concerns over China’s growing power, top Pentagon officials told Congress Thursday that U.S. forces must prepare for confrontation with Beijing in the coming years with major investments in modernized weaponry and enhanced foreign alliances.

“People’s Republic of China remains our No. 1 long-term geostrategic security challenge,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House panel Thursday. “China’s actions are moving it down the path toward confrontation and potential conflict with its neighbors—and possibly with the United States. But again, I say: war with China is neither inevitable nor imminent.”

Milley appeared alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense about the Pentagon’s record $842 billion budget request, which represents a 3.2% increase over the current fiscal year. Much of their testimony and lawmakers’ questions revolved around the threat posed by China, which is expanding its nuclear forces and increasing its threats toward the U.S.-allied island of Taiwan.

The Biden Administration has labeled Beijing as a “pacing challenge” that holds the potential to reshape the international order. As China has amassed economic power in recent years, it has forged close ties with governments in Africa, Latin America, and Central and Southeast Asia. The U.S. is responding by strengthening alliances across the Asia-Pacific region and sending additional forces and firepower to places like Guam and the Philippines while reinforcing military ties with Australia and Japan.

Read More: U.S. General Predicts War With China By 2025.

The Pentagon’s budget request includes a 40% increase for the Biden Administration’s so-called Pacific Defense Initiative, which aims to counter China’s military expansion in the Pacific region. “It’s an all-time high of $9.1 billion. That will fund a stronger force posture, better defenses for Hawaii and Guam, and deeper cooperation with our allies and partners,” Austin said.

Austin rattled off other funding figures: more than $61 billion for fighter jets and a new strategic bomber; more than $48 billion for the Navy, including the new construction of nine battle ships; $1.2 billion for nuclear attack and ballistic-missile submarines; and $11 billion for a mix of long-range artillery fires, including ultra-fast hypersonic technology. “This is a strategy-driven budget—and one driven by the seriousness of our strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

While the U.S. maintains a strong lead in aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and larger ships, China’s navy is now the world’s largest by raw numbers. And China is expected to expand its navy by nearly 40% between 2020 and 2040, according to the U.S. Navy. The Biden Administration has determined that Beijing is planning a fourfold increase in nuclear warheads to 1,500 by 2035, while simultaneously constructing hundreds of new silos capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles, potentially targeting the U.S. and its far-flung nuclear forces. While the U.S. has a more than 10 to 1 advantage over China in the number of nuclear warheads and the weapons to deliver them, the Pentagon sees a need to prepare for the decades ahead.

“Their military has advanced from a peasant-based infantry Army in 1979 [to a] world-class military that is a near-peer of the United States,” Milley said. “We don’t want a great power war with China. We want to prevent that, and the way to prevent it is a strong, powerful military with a demonstrated will to use it, if necessary.”

Outright conflict between the world’s top two economies would dwarf the damage to the global economy wrought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. and China have intertwined supply chains, international governance mechanisms, and bilateral trade that reached a record $760 billion last year. But the two nations are undergoing resurgent nationalism, concerted military build-ups, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric on both sides.

In the great power competition, diplomacy is giving way to more militarized action. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing in February after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted floating high above the northern continental United States, U.S. officials said.

Read More: The Chinese Spy Balloon Was Shot Down By the U.S. MIlitary. Here’s How It Went Down.

This week, tensions were high amid Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the growing concern that Beijing will support Moscow with weapons for its war with Ukraine. “We don’t see them providing any material support to Russia right now,” Austin said. “But we’re watching this very, very closely. If they were to go down that path, I think it would be very troubling for the international community.”

While China plans to increase military spending by more than 7% this year to around $225 billion, the U.S. continues to spend more on its military than the next nine countries combined. The Pentagon’s record-high $842 billion budget request is only expected to increase before it is finalized, thanks to Congressional add-ons.

“Obviously, I’m concerned about this budget,” said Republican Representative Ken Calvert of California, who serves as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee. “I think we’re going to work together to plus this up, somewhat, to make sure we meet the requirements. We’re going to work with our colleagues… to see if we can come up with a number that will meet the needs to protect this country and lead it into the future.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com