Congress must reprioritize the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act

Learn more about Igor Khrestin .
Igor Khrestin
Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute
Cory Gardner
Guest Author

A comprehensive legislative initiative to advance U.S. goals and interests in the Indo-Pacific region was signed into law just three days before the end of the 115th Congress in 2018.  

In a time of divisive partisan politics, Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) was one of the few bills in Congress done right, on both process and substance: It was wholly bipartisan; it was informed by a series of five hearings over two years at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; and it was coordinated with key executive agencies. Congress enacted ARIA unanimously in both chambers – almost unheard of for a bill of its size, scope, and importance. It was rightly heralded as a resounding win for U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region.   

But four years later, the State Department and other agencies have badly missed the mark in implementing key ARIA provisions. At a time when China is threatening its neighbors, propping up Russia’s war machine, and jailing dissidents, this state of affairs amounts to serious mismanagement and misdirection. The White House must immediately fix these errors of judgement and return to implementing the bill’s provisions as intended by Congress.  

ARIA sought to support three key strategic documents, including the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy, and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy. These directives had one major theme: the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has emerged as our peer adversary and the United States wasn’t doing enough in the Indo-Pacific to deter Beijing’s authoritarian ambitions.  

In partnership with the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative, ARIA was the legislative solution to this pressing challenge. It authorized significant new funds to supplement the regular appropriations for various key Indo-Pacific activities. ARIA was supposed to be “a generational whole-of-government policy framework that demonstrates U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and includes initiatives that promote sovereignty, rule of law, democracy, economic engagement, and regional security, as stated in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. 

Congress allocated $8.4 billion to implement the bill’s provisions from 2019 to 2024 – a princely sum considering the entire annual U.S. budget for foreign assistance (also known as the “150 account”) was $69 billion in fiscal year 2024.  

ARIA’s provisions and directives were clear: the authorized funds were intended for important regional security programs, economic and trade programs, and democracy and human rights initiatives. The bill also included $100 million annually to address regional cybersecurity threats, which primarily came from China and North Korea.   

Instead, the State Department directed funds to entirely different purposes, including for “birthing facilities in Bangladesh,” “natural resource management in the Philippines,” and “Vietnam’s Social Health Insurance policies,” as detailed in the GAO report. 

State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have “allocated a little more than half their combined $6.6 billion ARIA/IPS directed funding for FY 2019 through FY 2022 to health efforts and economic growth efforts,” the GAO report said.  

While the GAO identified some bright spots, like $74 million in funding to support democracy initiatives for China and $18 million for human rights in North Korea, these amounts are not even close to what Congress truly intended for this bill.  

We can’t combat a belligerent Beijing with birthing facilities and health insurance – worthy as those efforts may be on their own.  

Congress must get closely involved and use its vast oversight powers to hold the State Department and the administration to account until these issues are resolved. That means using public oversight hearings, stricter reporting requirements, and leveraging key nominations, along with other tools. The administration, in turn, can avoid these problems by simply complying with current law and congressional intent.   

Congress finally passed the $95 billion national security supplemental this past April, after months of intense debate. This included $8.1 billion for the Indo-Pacific region. American taxpayers might wonder why Congress has approved new funding if other funding streams like ARIA are underutilized or mismanaged.  

Congress and the administration must remedy this state of affairs now because the only clear winners at the moment are the dictators in Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang.  

Cory Gardner is former U.S. Senator from Colorado and served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy (2015- 2021). Igor Khrestin is the Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director of Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute.