American command of the seas in the Western Pacific has been essential to U.S. regional strategy over the past seventy years. The U.S. Navy’s dominance facilitated the uninterrupted flow of seaborne commerce, promoting transpacific access to markets and offering a chance at prosperity for those participating in the network of maritime trade. The naval service’s forward presence in Asia and its ability to respond rapidly to crises also deterred aggression and reassured allies, preserving a favorable balance of power.
For the United States, access begat wealth, wealth begat power, power begat stability, and stability begat access, restarting the positive-sum cycle. This is the grand strategic logic to superior seapower. However, China’s growing capacity to influence events offshore could put at risk the freedom of the seas that the United States and its longstanding allies have enjoyed for decades. Consequently, the virtuous interplay between access and power that allowed the United States to preside over a long peace in Asia is under strain.
China’s impressive buildup of naval might since the 1990s has enabled a historic continental power to skew the regional balance of naval power, contesting America’s accustomed supremacy in Asian waters. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is bolting together more warships than any country in the world. It already has the largest number of combatant ships in Asia, and it is expected to possess the biggest navy in the world by 2020. By the end of the Trump administration’s first term, China’s navy will also boast an expeditionary capability unmatched by any save the U.S. Navy.
If past is prologue, such a rapid accumulation of naval power portends unwelcome great-power dynamics. From antiquity to the modern era, radical shifts in the naval balance have stimulated destabilizing alliance realignments and arms races. Naval competitions have compelled states to invest heavily in leap-ahead technologies to stay ahead, and, under certain circumstances, to launch preventive military attacks. Fears of an irreversible tilt in the naval balance toward its rivals drove Japan to spring surprise attacks on Russia in 1904 and the United States in 1941.
Naval power emboldens China. The PLAN provides the ultimate backstop to the growing fleet of paramilitary vessels that Beijing regularly employs to assert its maritime prerogatives. When China’s Coast Guard cutters harass foreign ships, the Chinese navy lurks right over the horizon, waiting in reserve. It is China’s ability to climb higher on the escalation ladder when rival claimants cannot that has conferred so much coercive leverage to China’s maritime law enforcement vessels. Thus, the bulkier the PLAN gets, the more intimidating the civilian arm of Chinese maritime power becomes.
Notwithstanding the U.S. Navy’s qualitative superiority in seamanship and combat experience, built-in asymmetries in the naval balance have conspired to favor China. The only meaningful measure of a navy’s sufficiency is its ability to mass superior fighting power to defeat the strongest and most plausible enemy at the right place and at the right time. Yet, the reality for the United States is that only a fraction of its force will be in position to fight the whole of China’s force.
Most of Beijing’s vital seaward interests, ranging from Taiwan to resources to sea lanes to security buffer zones, are in the Yellow, East, and South Chin Seas. Fighting close to home, it can afford to throw the full weight of its military power, including shore-based missiles and aircraft, against an adversary. China’s dense arsenal of close-in, anti-access weaponry along the coastline testifies to this focus on localized conflicts.
By contrast, a distant global power like the United States enjoys no such luxury. With commitments spanning the world, Washington can only devote a portion of its naval forces to the Western Pacific. Diverting forces to Asia from obligations elsewhere remains an option, but such a choice requires statesmen to accept greater risks in other theaters from which those forces are being drawn.
This asymmetry is an unavoidable burden for a global navy. The age-old rule-of-thumb for the U.S. Navy is that it takes three ships to keep one on foreign station. In general, one is undergoing maintenance in shipyards, another is preparing for deployment, and the third is on cruise. At any given time, then, only a third of the total force is immediately available for worldwide contingencies.
Consider the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, in which it pledged to deploy 60 percent of naval combat power there. In 2015, the U.S. Navy planned for a fleet of 304 ships by 2020. About a third of the force, 115 ships, would be deployed around the world. Crucially, it is 60 percent of that deployed force, 66 ships, that would cover the vast expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This casts the Sino-American naval balance in a whole new light.
If the United States wishes to maintain access to Asia and preserve a favorable regional balance of power, then statesmen must pay renewed attention to naval power and strategy.
First, policymakers must jettison soothing narratives about America’s enduring preeminence at sea. A profound shift in the naval balance has already taken place in Asia and its implications remain largely unacknowledged. Statesmen can no longer count on overmatch, qualitative superiority, and ghee-whiz technologies as a talisman. The United States and its allies cannot take for granted the unencumbered freedom to use the seas. Coming to grips with this new reality is the starting point for staying competitive at sea.
Second, statesmen must reacquaint themselves with risk. No longer are Asian waterways a haven for the U.S. Navy. Run-ins with Chinese warships and military aircraft probably will comprise a permanent feature of Sino-American relations. That means testy encounters, cat-and-mouse games, and even deliberate collisions that were the staple of U.S.-Soviet interactions at sea could become routine. Just as the U.S. Navy learned to jockey for position against its Soviet rival in close quarters and developed procedures to manage naval incidents, the United States will have to adapt to a more contested and congested maritime environment in Asia. Recalibrating risk will enable policymakers to strike a balance between overreacting and underreacting to China’s growing presence and assertiveness in the Western Pacific.
Third, the United States must maximize one of its competitive advantages over China: allies. America’s security partners in the region, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, possess modern navies. Indeed, an understanding of the regional naval balance would be woefully incomplete without accounting for potential allied contributions. However, paying lip service to burden sharing is no longer viable. The time has come for imaginative strategies and operational force deployments for meaningful coalition warfare.
Finally, there are hopeful signs that officials recognize the urgent need to reinvest in seapower. The Trump administration has called for a 350-ship U.S. Navy, up from 275 as of this writing. And, naval leaders have conceded that the U.S. Navy must restore the ability to fight and win a war at sea, the raison d’être for any navy. Tellingly, in January 2017, officialdom released a strategy document affirming that fighting for sea command once again constitutes the surface navy’s central purpose.
But, policymakers must also recognize that regaining and extending the margin of U.S. naval superiority over the full weight of the PLAN and its sister services will not be easy. The administration’s pledge to build more ships would take years to fulfill even were the keels funded and laid today. At the same time, concepts such as ‘distributed lethality,’ which envision arming more surface vessels more heavily to cause trouble for opponents, will take time to bear fruit.
The above policy recommendations have been listed in descending order of importance—and for good reason. While revitalizing the material dimension of seapower is essential to success, the far more important responsibility among statesmen is the intellectual investment to meet China’s challenge at sea.