Spotlight - Southeast Asia and the National Defense Authorization Act: August 18, 2022

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is one of the highest priority pieces of legislation for Congress. Unless Congress passes the NDAA every fiscal year, important components of the Department of Defense (DoD) will be unable to operate, lacking both the authority and the funding to continue.
Because the NDAA is such a high priority, some members of Congress attempt to insert provisions into the bill that may have little or nothing to do with the DoD or national security in general. As a result, it is important to closely monitor the text of the NDAA as it winds its way through Congress.
The House of Representatives passed its version of the NDAA for fiscal year 2023, H.R. 7900, on July 14, 2022. The Senate Committee on Armed Services (SASC) submitted its version of the bill, S. 4543, on July 18, 2022, where it is awaiting action from the full Senate. Both versions of the NDAA contain provisions related to U.S. relations with Southeast Asia in general, as well as countries in the region.
The House Version of the NDAA
Representatives Steve Chabot, Mike Levin and Gregory Meeks introduced an amendment in the House version to include the text of Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2022 (H.R. 5497; Burma Act) into the NDAA. The Burma Act was passed by the House on April 6, 2022, but has received no further action by the Senate. The amendment was adopted as Title LXV of the House version of the NDAA.
Title LXV would impose additional economic sanctions on companies owned by Myanmar’s military, including the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. In addition, Myanmar military leaders and their family members would be ineligible to receive a visa to enter the United States. The amendment also authorizes the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide assistance “to civil society in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the surrounding region” to aid democracy activists in Myanmar and authorizes the appropriation of $50 million per year for fiscal years 2023 to 2027. Another portion of the amendment authorizes $220.5 million in fiscal year 2023 for “humanitarian assistance and reconciliation activities for ethnic groups and civil society organizations in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the surrounding region.”
Finally, Title LXV states “the Secretary of State may designate an official of the Department of State to serve as the United States Special Coordinator for Burmese Democracy.” A similar position, the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, was established in the JADE Act (P.L. 110-286), but was repealed by Section 5106 of the NDAA for fiscal year 2021.
Other amendments related to Southeast Asia were added to the House version of the NDAA. One amendment would require the Secretary of State to submit a report to Congress about alleged human rights violations committed by security forces in the Philippines. Another amendment addresses the problem of money laundering and specifically cites “the former Prime Minister of Malaysia” for allegedly using U.S. companies to “help steal $4.5 billion from Malaysia's public investment fund.”
In addition, the House version of the NDAA contains language pertaining to U.S. defense requirements in the Indo-Pacific region. Sections 1305–1308 require the DoD to report to Congress regarding “the feasibility and advisability of enhancing defense cooperation with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.” The United States has “collective defense agreements” with the Philippines and Thailand, and has close security relations with Singapore, so those nations would presumably be included in the required DoD report.
The Senate Version of the NDAA
SASC’s version of the NDAA contains none of the House amendments pertaining to Myanmar, Malaysia, or the Philippines. Also, it has different requirements regarding defense relations in the Indo-Pacific region, with specific mention of relations with the Philippines and Thailand. In addition, it provides for the continuation of the transfer of DoD funds to the State Department to finance the environmental clean-up of the Bien Hoa airbase in Vietnam.
Section 1252 provides a “sense of Congress on Defense Alliances and Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific Region.” It calls on the United States to “work with allies and partners to deepen our interoperability and develop and deploy advanced warfighting capabilities as we support them in defending their citizens and their sovereign interests.” It also supports “advancing United States alliances with the Philippines and Thailand and United States partnerships with other partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to enhance maritime domain awareness, promote sovereignty and territorial integrity, leverage technology and promote innovation, and support an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture.” Section 1250 requires the DoD to submit a report to Congress “on the adequacy of existing bilateral agreements between the United States and foreign governments that support the existing and planned military posture of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.” This report will include a country-by-country assessment of “existing or possible new bilateral agreements.”
Section 1242 provides for the “extension of authority to transfer funds for Bien Hoa dioxin cleanup.” During the Vietnam War, Bien Hoa airbase was a major center for the U.S. military’s distribution and application of different types of chemical defoliants, which contained dangerous dioxins that can cause various forms of cancer and birth defects.
In January 2018, USAID and Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence signed a memorandum of intent (MOI) to begin the decontamination of Bien Hoa airport. For more about the Bien Hoa clean-up project, see CRS Report R44628, U.S. Agent Orange/Dioxin Assistance to Vietnam, February 10, 2021.
The estimated cost of the Bien Hoa project exceeded USAID’s normal budgetary limits. Since fiscal year 2019, the NDAA has included authorization for the transfer of DoD funds to make up the funding gap. Section 1242 extends the authority provided by Section 1253(b) of the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 through fiscal year 2023. Section 4301 sets the transfer amount at $15 million.
Status of the NDAA
As Congress heads into its traditional August recess, the NDAA awaits approval by the Senate. After Congress returns from its recess, the House and Senate will need to resolve their differences in the bill and then take final votes. Given that the fiscal year ends on September 30, members of Congress will be under some pressure to pass the NDAA—or at least pass a continuing resolution to keep the DoD fully functional. With the congressional midterm elections set for November, it is unclear if both Democrats and Republicans will wish to complete the work on the NDAA or wait to see if there a switch in the balance of power in either the House or the Senate.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program