CNO: Bigger Navy Not Needed to Police Pacific
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that a rising China and tensions at globally vital trade chokepoints make a Navy presence in the Western Pacific critical, but that a buildup of forces was not in the cards.
“It’s not a big naval buildup in the Far East,” Greenert said at an Jan. 10 forum hosted by the Center For New American Security, in Washington, D.C. “We’re there. We have been there. We’ll continue to be there.”
Greenert’s assessment is that the Navy as currently deployed could handle China as it flexes its muscles. Budget cuts and the new strategic guidance document rolled out by the Obama administration “won’t affect operations in Southeast Asia,” Greenert said.
To keep the stream of oil and goods flowing through crossroads like the Straits of Malacca, the Navy needs to “be tangibly present and dependable,” Greenert said.
The Chinese “have a great regional military capability and capacity,” he said. “Under certain circumstances, they could limit access” to important trade routes and other resources.
On any given day, 50 ships are deployed to the western Pacific and another 30 to the greater Indian Ocean to protect vital maritime portals like the Straits of Hormuz. Regardless of whether the Navy’s fleet shrinks or grows from the current strength of 284 ships, the proportion steaming in those areas will remain constant, Greenert said. Compared to the 30 ships underway daily in the Atlantic, the Pacific already commands a greater portion of the Navy’s attention.
“This fleet distribution will be similar in the future,” he said. “Numbers matter. But regardless of size, this is where we put our forces.”
That message ran counter to the conclusions of a recent CNAS report that called for a sizeable increase to the Navy’s fleet to back up the U.S. diplomatic posturing toward China. Greenert spoke at an event hyping the report’s release.
The CNAS study, while calling for a bigger Navy fleet, also urges the United States to shrink its budget deficit and strengthen its economy so it can compete more effectively with a rising China.
Shrinking the Navy to 250 ships would make the United States appear weak as it tries to keep sea-lanes open to commerce in Southeast Asia, said the report, titled “Cooperation from Strength, the United States, China and the South China Sea." Strong diplomacy should be backed by a strong military presence — at least 346 ships, the report suggests.
“In this fiscal and political environment, a 250-ship Navy is a lot more realistic than a 350-ship Navy,” said Patrick Cronin, a coauthor of the report and CNAS senior director for the Asia-Pacific security program. “But that’s what I’m worried about. If we set a trend over the course off this decade that we’re heading down, not up then we’re going to be discounted even further and China will be accelerated in terms of its leverage and its influence.”
The road to a harmonious Southeast Asia is not through intimidation, Cronin said. Instead, the United States should continue to seek cooperation with China, rather than inviting conflict. But to influence China and keep the gears of international commerce spinning, the U.S. must come to the table from a position of strength, he said.
“We can work this out, this is not leading to conflict,” Cronin said. “But we want to do it from a position where we look like a strong country, not from one where we look like a declining and weak power.” That will require not only a strong naval presence, but an equally strong U.S. economy, the report concludes.
“We want to see, first and foremost, a strong economic foundation for the U.S. economy,” Cronin said. “There is a great need for America to get its economic house in order. First by not spending more than we have and second, integrating with a rising, emerging Indo-Pacific region.”
Greenert agreed, touting relationships with longstanding allies like Japan and Australia as a regional deterrent to conflict. He also highlighted developing partnerships with smaller regional actors like Indonesia and Vietnam that lay overlapping claims to strategic waters also claimed by China.