President Donald Trump wants to build up the U.S. Navy, a move that could help the United States counter China’s aggressive expansion into the Western Pacific.
But the new, bigger fleet will come too late to save America from a rising China. That’s because Trump’s other initiatives—rejecting foreign alliances, throwing up barriers to global trade and withdrawing from efforts to combat climate change—are creating a power vacuum that China naturally fills.
Beijing will step into leadership roles that Trump’s Washington has vacated quicker than Trump’s Navy stands any chance of blocking Chinese ascension.
The counterproductiveness of Trump’s China strategy seems to make no sense, until you realize that Trump doesn't want a bigger Navy in order to deter China. He wants a bigger Navy for the same reason he wanted to include tanks and missile launchers in his inaugural parade:
Trump is a chauvinist and aspiring autocrat for whom displays of strength are the same as actual strength—and whose primary audience isn’t rising foreign powers, but the majority of Americans who voted against him and who strongly oppose his policies.
As recently as the late 1980s, China possessed only a modest navy whose main role was to protect the Chinese coast from possible invasion by Soviet forces. As the Chinese economy expanded in the 1990s and 2000s, Beijing’s strategic aspirations expanded, too. The Chinese Communist Party needed a navy to assert and protect its increasingly global role.
After 20 years of investment, today the Chinese navy looks a lot like the U.S. Navy does. It possesses more than 100 large, sophisticated warships armed with long-range guided missiles plus hundreds of smaller ships. It has nuclear-powered submarines. In 2012, it commissioned its first aircraft carrier. Today a second carrier is under construction in Shanghai.
Emboldened by its new, powerful fleet, in recent years China has forcefully expanded into the China Seas, occupying isolated reefs in disputed waters and transforming them into armed outposts replete with guns and missile launchers, airfields and port facilities for warships.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has shrunk from its Cold War peak, and today numbers around 280 frontline warships. These ships patrol less often. In 1996, the U.S. Navy sailed two aircraft carriers side-by-side through the Taiwan Strait as a message to a belligerent Beijing. Today it's exceedingly rare for two of America's remaining 11 flattops to deploy together anywhere.
It was the George W. Bush administration that first identified the need for a bigger fleet to counter the Chinese, among other potential threats. President Barack Obama mostly continued Bush’s fleet plans, slowly adding a few, mostly smaller, vessels. Obama was constrained first by the global economic crisis and, later, by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which mandated across-the-board cuts in government spending.
Trump has pledged to repeal the Budget Control Act and grow the fleet to 350 ships—a move Obama’s outgoing Navy Secretary Ray Mabus actually strongly endorsed. With Republican majorities in Congress, Trump can theoretically accomplish both goals.
But navies don't grow fast or cheaply. A new warship costs U.S. taxpayers $2 billion, on average, and takes several years to build and bring into the fleet. Even if Trump and Congress give the Navy every dollar it asks for starting with the 2017 budget—Trump’s first—the sailing branch won't receive the first of the new ships Trump promised until right around the time candidates start campaigning for the 2020 presidential election.
It’s for that reason that many outside observers are skeptical of Trump’s bold pronouncements on the military front.
“The big issue for me is how long this buildup is going to last,” Eric Wertheim, an independent naval expert and author of Combat Fleets of the World, told The Daily Beast.
“Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, all countries will respect the U.S. more than they have under previous administrations,” Trump vowed during a Jan. 11 press conference. But if Trump is counting on a bigger military to drive that respect, he might be disappointed.
And in the meantime, Trump is voluntarily surrendering ground to Beijing on economic, diplomatic, and environmental fronts, opening the door to an even greater global role for China that the country’s own growing military will only reinforce.
In one of his first acts as president, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade pact that Obama had initiated in the hope of getting regional economies to agree to U.S. rather than Chinese legal, labor, and environmental standards and tariff-free imports.
Eleven countries have signed the TTP, but the pact loses much of its power without American participation. In November 2016, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) warned that Trump abandoning the trade deal “will create an opening for China to rewrite the economic rules of the road at the expense of American workers.”
Trump’s promise to effectively quit the Paris Climate Accord, Obama's signature environmental accomplishment, will have a similar China-emboldening effect. Halting U.S. investment in clean energy technology such as solar and wind will surrender a $1.35-trillion annual world market to China, which is set to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into new green tech over the next few years in a bid to sharply reduce its own, presently sky-high, carbon emissions.
Trump doesn’t seem interested in competing on the clean-tech front. And that benefits Beijing. “There can now be no question that China—while still leading the world in both coal consumption and carbon emissions—is also leading the way forward to the clean-energy future,” wrote Barbara Finamore, Asia director at the Natural Resources Defense Counsel.
Finally, Trump seems determined to undermine America’s longstanding Pacific alliances, surrendering what is arguably the United States’ biggest advantage relative to China. Note that America never planned to confront an assertive China on its own. U.S. military planning in the Western Pacific has long assumed close cooperation with friendly countries—most importantly, Japan, which possesses the third-most-powerful navy in the region after the United States and China.
But Trump began pushing away Japan even before he got elected. In March 2016, Trump said that Japan should develop its own nuclear weapons so that it can defend itself without American help. “We can’t afford to do it anymore,” Trump said.
As the world’s only victims of atomic warfare, the Japanese people and their government are deeply opposed to nuclear weaponry. Trump either didn’t know that or doesn’t care. But the effect was the same. Alarm. In the aftermath of Trump’s comment, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed to reassure his country. “Whoever will become the next president of the United States, the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy,” Abe warned.
Abe signaled cautious optimism following a November meeting with Trump in New York City. “The talks made me feel sure that we can build a relationship of trust,” Abe said in a carefully-worded statement. But America and Japan already had a relationship of trust prior to Trump’s entry onto the world stage.
It’s because of Trump that Abe had to reassure his citizens at all. President Trump must work hard simply to return U.S. diplomacy to where it was before candidate Trump started mouthing off. That creates an opening for Beijing to assume a greater regional leadership role, even amid China's own aggression in the China Seas.
China's continuing commitment to free trade could more than make up for the country’s military bellicosity when it comes to aligning other governments behind it—and Beijing knows it. Hence Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trade-themed charm offensive. “Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room,” Xi said at the economic summit in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 17. “Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so are light and air.”
If Asian countries follow China’s lead on trade and the environment, they could lend Beijing the diplomatic heft to firm up and legitimize China’s recent military gains. When Trump’s bigger Navy sets sail in 2019 or 2020, it could arrive in the Western Pacific too late to make any difference for America’s standing in the region.