These maritime disputes are cast against the backdrop of decades of Chinese naval build-up, Beijing’s maritime bullying, and the country’s intransigent and tireless peddling of patently illegal maritime claims. China’s grand effort to convert large swaths of the oceans into an area under Chinese suzerainty is a dangerous game that risks naval war. The cornerstone of American power and security is global access, and particularly maritime mobility. This isn’t new. The first war fought by an independent United States was over the issue of freedom of the seas—the 1798-1800 Quasi-War with France. The second US war was the First Barbary War of 1804; the third US conflict was the War of 1812, and the fourth war involving the United States was the Second Barbary War. For each of these conflicts, the key US issue was ensuring freedom of the seas. Likewise, the issue of freedom of the seas helped precipitate US involvement in two world wars and, in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Vietnam War. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
But China has made uncanny progress on its dogged trek to transition from an obsolete 1950s-style coastal defense force to a balanced blue water fleet. Several factors are in play as China unveils a stable of advanced and emerging systems. First, China is working feverishly on a new weapon that will alter the strategic calculus—the 1,500-mile range DF-21 ASBM, specifically designed to decapitate US carrier strike groups. The DF-21 will be armed with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) that, in combination with a space-based maritime surveillance and targeting system, can be used to strike moving warships at sea. This is unlike any threat ever faced by the US Navy, and the prospect of intercepting a maneuvering ballistic missile reentry vehicle is daunting.
Second, after suffering an embarrassing indignity in 1996 when President Bill Clinton ordered the Nimitz and Independence carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait, China has embarked on a program to build a powerful surface fleet, which will include aircraft carriers. As a maritime nation with worldwide responsibilities, the United States devotes only 26 percent of its defense budget to the Navy and Marine Corps. The Chinese Navy, on the other hand, attracts more than 33 percent of the nation’s military spending.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
While the United States has the forward-deployed USS George Washington on a short tether, oftentimes Washington has no other carrier in theater, meaning that even two or three Chinese carriers operating in the area likely will exceed the number of US flattops. The Chinese fleet is about 260 vessels, including 75 major warships and more than 60 submarines, and the entire force is complemented by hundreds of fast cruise-missiles shooting offshore patrol vessels and land-based aircraft.
By comparison, the US Navy battle force, run ragged with global responsibilities, has shrunk by 20 percent since 2001. The US fleet will be hard-pressed to maintain a force of 11 carriers, 31 amphibious warfare ships, 88 major surface combatants and 48 submarines, all spread thinly throughout the world. The United States believes it can be ‘virtually present’ everywhere, and then surge actual forces in the event of a crisis. But ‘virtual presence’ is actual absence, and the US strategy is tacit recognition that the Navy that had approached 600 ships in the 1980s is incapable of maintaining even half that number.