For six out of the last seven years, China’s military budget has grown rapidly. Meanwhile, following the disastrous military and foreign policy carried out by Barack Obama, the US navy has shrunk to a size not seen since World War I. It’s no surprise then that America’s credibility on the high seas has declined, as did its power projection capabilities. While this simple juxtaposition of facts should come as a clarion call for all Americans who care about the security of the country, Senate Democrats simply refuse to hear the bugle’s call. Their continuous denial to support President Trump’s proposed military spending increase of $54 billion can only spell disaster for Washington’s global standing.
Spooked by Trump’s announcement that he would like to ramp up spending on the military, China recently reacted by announcing to increase spending by 7%, with most of the budget likely being allocated to its increasingly powerful and important navy (PLA-N). However, defense experts caution that the budget figures released by the government significantly underreport the true expenditure, as China has historically gone to considerable lengths to conceal the real strength of its military. For example, Beijing officially spent $146.6 billion in 2016, though the true figures are estimated to be between $180 billion and $199 billion. It is likely that this year’s 7% increase is merely the tip of the iceberg.
What we do know, thanks to a 2015 report by the Office of Naval Intelligence, is that China is quickly building out its naval capabilities from shoreline defense to open seas operations. China currently has 205 coast guard and regional maritime law enforcement ships, more than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines combined. Each year from 2013 through 2016 China launched more naval ships than any other country, equipped with new generation missiles that “pose unprecedented challenges to the air defenses of U.S. and allied ships.” By 2020 China’s second domestically manufactured aircraft carrier is due to enter service, greatly advancing the radius of China’s operational capability.
Far from the coastline defense that the Chinese navy traditionally served, its ships have recently conducted missions as far away as the Gulf States, the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. In 2015 five Chinese ships entered US waters off the coast of Alaska. All of this has taken place despite, or likely because of, former president Obama’s failed Asian pivot. The re-orientation of America’s foreign strategic interests away from the Middle East and Europe to Asia only succeeded in embittering China, leading to increasingly aggressive behavior to which the Obama administration was unable to respond, weakening US standing in the region. B
It is hardly surprising then that some US allies, like the Philippines, have switched allegiances. “America has lost”, announced Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last October. Even more concerning, China is accomplishing the same feat beyond its traditional backyard. This year, Beijing will open its first overseas naval base halfway around the world – in Djibouti, just miles away from a vital US installation. That Djibouti is leasing its “logistics hub” (read: naval base) to China for one-third the rate of what it charges the US to rent Camp Lemonnier, crucial for fighting Al-Shabab militants in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, speaks volumes about which way the wind is blowing. Concluding the US to be losing its predominance, President Ismail Guelleh evidently is more easily swayed by Chinese cash than long-standing US security guarantees, and has sought stronger trade ties with Beijing. This is not a surprising move, given how Guelleh has a proven track record of abandoning allies it no longer deems useful. Just this February, a former ally turned political rival successfully defeated a claim made by Guelleh that he had received bribes from DP World, a port operator, to enable the Dubai-based company to win managing rights of the Doraleh Container Terminal.
This stunning slap in the face to America from a longstanding ally goes to show how fickle US foreign alliances can be if they are not backed up by the perception of military might. Trump’s call for a rise in military spending with an emphasis on building up the nation’s depleted naval capacity from 275 to 350 ships, including 12 aircraft carriers, is long overdue. The fleet increase will cost about $165 billion over 30 years, but given the leaps and bounds by which the Chinese military is catching up with that of the US, one would think that investment in the military would be one of the president’s less controversial proposals. Nevertheless, Senate Democrats have already signaled they are going to make it as difficult as possible for Trump to get his budget passed.
Democrats have in the past blocked defense bills persistently, and the arguments remain the same: that the current funding request violates spending caps implemented in 2011, and slashes billions from non-defense spending to free up military funds. Clearly, this withholding of dearly required funds is counter to American strategic interests, for a strong navy has always been the backbone of American global power projection because of its ability to defend critical sea-lanes and to defeat enemies across the globe. But as of now, the country’s national security is being held hostage to partisan politics.
Democrats need to realize that in order to resist a rising China that is increasingly challenging US supremacy on the global seas, the broader geostrategic picture needs to be taken into account. Instead of staunchly impeding the policy-making process, America and its allies will be better served if cooperation with the president on this issue is a priority, and a compromise is found. No American benefits from the Democrats blocking the defense budget increase. Only our rivals do.