Is the U.S. Navy Weak? The Chinese Seem to Think So.

Chinese military commentators have shared their thoughts on recent U.S. Naval accidents and what they think it means for the larger geopolitical struggle in the Asia-Pacific.

This broader line of attack becomes a major theme of the Chinese analyses. Describing the situation of the U.S. Navy as “awful” [糟], Chinese military analysts highlight in the 25 August article what they perceive to be a “real and structural contradictions.” [现实与结构性矛盾]. It is observed that the U.S. is seeking to maintain a naval presence in eighteen crucial sea areas, but that the necessary force requirement to meet that strategic imperative is at least 300 to 355 ships. Yet, “today there are just 272 ships,” the analysis states. These Chinese military commentators might make a valid criticism in suggesting that the U.S. Navy is genuinely lacking a low cost workhorse [工作驽马] vessel of the light frigate type. According to this analysis, the consistent deployment of Burke-class destroyers is “completely inappropriate” and just contributes to wearing down the ships and creates chances for accidents. At present, the U.S. Navy is viewed as “overloaded.” [超负荷] President Donald Trump’s ambition to expand the U.S. Navy’s “big deck” aircraft carrier strength back to 12 is also noted, and it is explained that he will try to fill the Navy spending gap by squeezing “small money” [小钱], such as the U.S. Coast Guard. Here, the Chinese analysts also forecast further trouble, because they suggest that U.S. shipyards lack smooth processes for providing trained personnel for technological sustainment. [解决技术支持 …人力资源的的培训工作也不轻松]. The main analysis concludes by suggesting that the “Cold War mentality” is the greatest barrier to resolving the above contradictions. The Chinese rendering sees a tool for sea power that is forward deployed everywhere and throughout the whole world. They contend that this will inevitably lead to the result of overstretch.

Such discussions among Chinese strategists are not surprising, but are still disturbing, of course. Undoubtedly, these attitudes could cause Beijing to challenge Washington ever more stridently in the Western Pacific, and could even lead to the grave misperception that the U.S. Navy is a “paper tiger” [纸老虎]. Such a risk must inform our collective urgency to “right the ship.” Still, the issue of a relationship between overstretch and current U.S. strategy cannot be dismissed altogether. After all, strategy is equivalent to choice and ultimately prioritization. Attempting to be strong everywhere at all times indicates a poor grasp of strategy and/or an unwillingness to make tough, but necessary choices.

Lyle J. Goldstein is professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

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