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China's Growing Challenge to U.S. Naval Power

Seth Cropsey

On his recent trip to Asia, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel tried to allay fears that the 7% cut to the Pentagon’s budget due to the sequester will diminish America’s protective influence in the region. Referring to President Obama’s pledge to “rebalance” U.S. forces in favor of Asia, Mr. Hagel told reporters that America is carrying forward “every measurement of our commitment to that ‘rebalance.’ “

He also spoke of U.S. efforts to improve military-to-military relations with China. His aides pointed to plans for increasing the U.S. Marine contingent based in Darwin on Australia’s north coast to 1,100 from 250.
The defense secretary’s message was unlikely to reassure America’s allies in the region. The U.S. Marine contingent in Darwin, even if it reaches its long-term goal of 2,500 personnel, might be useful in a conflict over control of the narrow sea passages (the Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait and Lombok Strait) through which shipping between Asia and Europe must pass. But the Marines would be of limited use if China directly threatened Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines or Vietnam. Darwin is roughly as far from the northern reaches of the South China Sea as New York is from San Francisco.
China will be participating in U.S.-led naval exercises near Hawaii, part of an effort to improve military relations with China. The exercises include Australia, Canada, South Korea and Japan. That’s all well and good, but it is ludicrous to imagine that any of this will moderate Beijing’s vaulting ambitions in the Western Pacific. In addition to China’s long-standing threat to Taiwan, Beijing has made no secret of its desire for hegemony in the South and East China seas. It already has engaged in provocative incidents over territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines.
These ambitions are backed by an extensive program of Chinese military modernization. According to a report last month by the U.S. Defense Department, Beijing continues to build up its medium-range and long-distance missile arsenal, antiship cruise missiles, space weapons and military cyberspace capabilities. China is also improving its fighters, building three classes of attack submarines, and has commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. It is, in short, building an advanced system of weaponry capable of striking Asian states from afar.
Facing this growing military might in the Western Pacific is a U.S. fleet less than half the size it was at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. The plan to build the 306-ship fleet that the Navy says is necessary to accomplish all its missions rests on assumptions about shipbuilding costs that the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service agree are unrealistic. The current situation is also troubling. On Tuesday, Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on sea power, told a group at Washington’s Hudson Institute that “In 2007, the Navy was able to meet about 90% of America’s combatant commanders’ need [for ships]. This year that figure will fall to 51%.”
The growing disparity between Chinese and U.S. military investment will eventually alter the balance of power in the Western Pacific. This shift will likely lead either to military conflict or to tacit American acknowledgment of Chinese dominance. A war would be disastrous, but Chinese dominance would not bode well either: The U.S. ability to shape the international order would end with Chinese supremacy in the most populous and economically vigorous part of the world.
The budgets needed to achieve the Navy’s goals were unlikely even before sequestration. The defense budget since 9/11 has averaged 4.1% of GDP. Under the budgets projected by the Obama administration, the figure is projected to drop to 2.5% in less than a decade.
If America’s unilateral disarmament occurs and the Pentagon leadership clings to a more or less equal division of dollars among the military services, the U.S. sea power available in the Western Pacific will decline significantly. Alternatively, to maintain strong forces in the Pacific, the U.S. would be forced to abandon its naval presence in such areas of strategic concern as the Caribbean or the Persian Gulf.
Such a shell game is not in the best interest of U.S. strategy. Neither is it in the interest of the international order that America has helped to establish and maintain in the decades since World War II. What ultimately matters for the U.S. and for a stable world order is America’s ability to maintain a distributed and powerful presence across the globe.
Yes, the U.S. needs to pay greater attention to the security situation in Asia. But “rebalancing” requires weight, and America is losing this weight. Japan’s plan to increase its submarine fleet to 24 from 16 demonstrates that Asia’s leaders know it.

Mr. Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of “Mayday” (Overlook, 2013). He served as a naval officer from 1985 to 2004 and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

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