Recent years have not been the best for America’s Navy. In an era of flatlining defense budgets and constrained fiscal resources, the US fleet has shrunk by 52%, from 594 ships in the late 80s to 293 today.
Speaking to the RAND Corporation on September 16, United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper introduced a comprehensive plan to expand US Naval powers in the Indo-Pacific, a region he called “our priority theater” and “the epicenter of great power competition with China.”
Aimed at curbing Chinese maritime aggression, the plan (titled “Future Forward”) would substantially increase the US fleet, raising the number of vessels to 355, adding approximately 60 smaller surface ships, submarines, autonomous warships and advanced drones. Truly a “game-changer,” the plan would also add tens of billions of dollars to the Navy’s budget between now and 2045.
A Pentagon report on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released in September found that Beijing has the world’s largest naval fleet, with 350 ships and submarines. The PLA’s Navy is now building its third and largest aircraft carrier. It also holds twenty modern Aegis-type destroyers, supported by eleven older destroyers. Eighteen of the twenty newer warships were commissioned within the past seven years.
“It is difficult to appreciate just how fast China has been able to create a blue water navy,” the US Naval Institute reported in February.
While China’s ships currently outnumber those of the US, Esper observed, the Chinese navy lags behind in strength and capability. The Brookings Institute reports, “America’s Navy remains way ahead in tonnage — still by a factor of at least two-to-one over China’s. It is ahead by at least ten-to-one in carrier-based airpower. It is way ahead, too, in the quality and quantity of long-range attack submarines.”
Still, Esper warned, the US military “does not have a preordained right to victory in combat. Beijing and Moscow have studied how we fight and are developing asymmetric capabilities designed to counter our strengths.”
“Our first line of effort,” he said, “aims to maintain our warfighting advantages and continue outpacing the competition when it comes to lethality and readiness.” Beyond this, “we must retain our overmatch; and we will keep building modern ships to ensure we remain the world’s greatest Navy.”
“This is what China can do, and must do”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reacted to the news with its usual saber-rattling bravado. An editorial in China’s Global Times said China does not seek global supremacy but does intend to be dominant in local waters. The US navy is “destined to gradually lose its dominance” in China’s adjacent waters, Beijing believes, despite Esper’s claims. Supporting the country’s military buildup is “an unswerving goal of the Chinese society … In our opinion, this is not too much at all, and this is what China can do, and must do.”
“The US military enjoys overall strength,” the editorial warns. “However, the US is far from being almighty … When the country pursues goals way beyond its capabilities due to its greed, it will turn from being a real tiger to a paper tiger.” The South China Sea and Indo-Pacific will thereby “be a domain where US strength does not match its ambitions.”
The risks of confrontation between the US and China
Liu Weidong, a US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, observed that “China was accustomed to remarks” such as Esper’s, but that “the risks of confrontation between China and the US were indeed increasing, caused mainly by Washington’s strategic shift.”
The US is not alone in responding to recent actions taken by China at sea and elsewhere. As Derek Grossman notes on the RAND Blog, “Beijing’s rising assertiveness against Hong Kong, Taiwan, and counter claimants in the East and South China Seas, and now even against India along the Himalayas, has resulted in unprecedented agreement across the Indo-Pacific and beyond that China’s muscular approach is an unwelcome development in the region.”
In July alone, the allegedly pro-China president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, postponed a decision on whether to terminate the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, thanks to ongoing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Japan decried China’s unilateral efforts to “change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku Islands.” Indonesia held highly visible military exercises in the region, responding to Chinese incursions at sea and Malaysia rejected “in its entirety” China’s request to the UN regarding South China Sea sovereignty.
“If Beijing continues to ramp up its assertiveness,” Grossman writes, “additional countries are likely to follow suit, leaving China further isolated.”
The situation in the Indo-Pacific is for many a serious cause for concern. “The relationship between China and the US is in freefall,” the Financial Times wrote in late August. “That is dangerous.”
Numbered among the concerned is Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, who said his nation and others in Asia are increasingly worried that the US “treating China as an adversary” may have grave consequences. As citizens of a small nation that has succeeded through “hard work and paranoia” to maintain independence, he said, “we can see all the threats around us.” The relationship between Washington and Beijing has sunk to a “very dangerous” level, Lee said, with no sign of tensions easing after the upcoming US election. Across the Indo-Pacific, “issues [between the US and China] have been metastasizing.”
Singapore and the US made an agreement in 2019 granting American naval and air forces access to Singapore’s military facilities. Joint military exercises in the South China Sea have been a point of contention between the US and China, given Beijing’s growing territorial claims.
US-China relations are “the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” Lee said, although marked now by “deep distrust” that is increasingly confrontational, from trade to diplomacy to military displays of force. Negotiations between countries are preferable to precarious “face-offs at sea.”
Leadership and global security
China’s role in global security governance has grown and international cooperation could benefit many. China has increased foreign aid and development assistance to nations in the form of infrastructure projects given as gifts, has stepped up disaster relief and pledged to develop a global COVID-19 vaccine and distribute it when one comes available.
Beijing has expanded its military ties in Africa lately through peacekeeping missions, with bases in Djibouti and other African nations. According to the World Economic Forum, China is now “the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.”
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in mid-September, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China would “continue to work as a builder of global peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of international order,” urging the world to “join hands to uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us.”
The meeting, held in New York, was one US President Donald Trump chose not to attend in the flesh, making an appearance via video call-in.
“It remains to be seen how Chinese-U.S. relations might change over the next few years,” Foreign Policy suggests, “but it is premature — even irresponsible — to conclude that the relationship is bound to become hostile. China’s economic success could be attractive to other developing countries, but there is no indication that the Chinese government is trying to sell its success story as a way to spread its ideology and challenge the international order.”
A fiscally and politically achievable shipbuilding goal
These last years have not been the best years for America’s Navy. In an era of flatlining defense budgets and constrained fiscal resources, the US fleet has shrunk by 52%, from 594 ships in the late 80s to 293 today, even while the Navy has forward-deployed the same number of vessels.
Increasing demands on a dwindling fleet for persistent presence – with fewer resources and less time for training and maintenance – have taken their toll. Harbor fires, political scandals, rotating civilian leadership and slow adaptation to new technologies all point to deep systematic problems, evidenced most strikingly in 2017 when the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain were involved in separate collisions that killed 17 sailors. A review determined that longer deployments, inadequate training and reduced maintenance led to poor readiness, not to mention loss of life.
However, “Future Forward” will not sail (or even launch) without bona fide funding. “It may not be possible [for the US] to build the fleet to 350-plus vessels within resource constraints,” the Australian Strategic Policy Institute observed in a report titled “The US Navy Is Chasing the Impossible.”
“A [US] Congressional Budget Office analysis of the 2020 shipbuilding plan,” the report states “— which aimed to achieve a 355-ship navy by 2034 — estimated that it would cost on average US$31 billion per year in 2019 dollars, a third more than the navy judged its plan would cost … That would almost double the navy’s average appropriation over the past 30 years.”
America’s Navy has been divided for years between growing operational demands and a fiscally and politically achievable shipbuilding goal. As a result, the “Navy, and Congress, appear to be in denial about the structural and historical realities of naval construction,” the ASPI concludes.
“The Navy’s estimates for a 355-ship fleet do not account for the faster growth in labour and materials costs in shipbuilding compared with the rest of the economy, which has led to above-inflation increases. The cost of staffing and maintaining the larger fleet would also be vast — the Congressional Budget Office estimated that support costs would reach US$90 billion a year by 2049, up from the average of US$60 billion.”
The way forward
“If the two most powerful countries on Earth can manage not to sleepwalk into war,” Foreign Policy suggests, “then the world is already much safer.”
Rather than directly engage with Beijing, the US can institute sanctions, impose export control restrictions, limit transactions for tech firms and so on, all aimed at keeping China in line in the Indo-Pacific – and indicate to China that it “has no right to turn international waters into a zone of exclusion for its own maritime empire,” said Esper.
“There is no going back to the days of overwhelming American military preeminence within 100 miles of China’s shores,” according to Brookings, but diplomatic approaches and choices would have “a much lower chance of escalating to what could become World War III.”
What Esper’s scheduled visit to China later this year will accomplish remains to be seen. The visit itself is believed to be “a valuable step forward in communication and risk reduction … Talking past each other is better than not talking at all.”
“We are not in search of conflict,” Esper said in July, regarding the upcoming meeting. “We are committed to a constructive and results oriented relationship with China and, within our defense relationship, to open lines of communication and risk reduction … [in order to] establish the systems necessary for crisis communications.”
Speaking in a forum in Beijing to promote “One Belt, One Road” (China’s trade and infrastructure initiative), Xi Jinping said “[m]any countries are pondering the way forward. [But] in a world of growing interdependence and challenges … no country can tackle all the challenges or solve the world’s problems on its own.”
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