The Navy's top officer detailed Tuesday the strategy for making sure the South China Sea and Western Pacific remain open to international shipping, saying an emerging China might try to "limit access in the region."
The remarks by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, represented a frank assessment of China's potential power grabs as it continues a military buildup that includes more ships and anti-ship weapons.
Adm. Greenert spoke a week after President Obama presented his military strategy, which states that the armed forces will put renewed focus on Asia and the Middle East. The Obama strategy mentions China as a "regional power" that can affect U.S. security "in a variety of ways."
Appearing at the Center for a New American Security think tank, Adm. Greenert was more specific.
"Over the long term, China will have the greatest potential, I view, to affect the economic and the security dynamics throughout the region and perhaps the world," he said. "Their economic strength has grown. They have great regional capability and capacity, and it's growing.
"And under circumstances, that capability could limit access in the region."
The admiral said the Navy has deployed 100 of its 285 ships, and half are in the Western Pacific.
"About half of those are forward deployed naval forces in and around Japan," he said. "That's the most advanced air wing we have, the most advanced cruisers and destroyers, ordnance, anti-submarine warfare. And we screen our sailors and our commanders very carefully. We put our best in the Western Pacific."
The admiral suggested that China, which is suspected of cyberattacks on U.S. military and industry computer networks, also is targeting ships at sea.
"The first and most significant area will be the Western Pacific, and that is where the vast majority of our afloat cyberinvestments are right now today and will be in the future," he said.
Unstated by Adm. Greenert is the fleet's future size. The new strategy will produce a military smaller than the current 1.4 million active force. Analysts say the Navy faces the prospect of remaining with fewer than 300 ships for years, even though its goal is 320 or more.
Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst who is advising the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, said several of China's neighbors, including communist Vietnam, are looking to the U.S.
"The Chinese navy has become very aggressive in trying to push out the navies of the Philippines, Japan and other local powers to extend Chinese sovereignty beyond what international law would allow," Mr. Boot said. "Everybody would like to see China have a peaceful rise.
"But there are also very strong militarist and nationalist tendencies that we see in China, with a lot of blood-curdling rhetoric coming from the People's Liberation Army about making war against the United States."
He added: "I think we have to preserve the balance of power in the Pacific. But unfortunately, right now, I see the balance of power tilting against us. And I see a further tilt unless we actually increase our defense spending and expand the size of our Navy, in particular, which I think is at a dangerously low level."
Richard Betts, also a council analyst and longtime Washington national security figure who worked on the Walter Mondale presidential campaign, said the Navy remains unmatched in the world.
"If the mission of the United States is to run the world militarily, to be the global policeman and to control all conflictual areas in the world militarily, our defense budget is nowhere near big enough now." he said. "But I challenge that assumption.
"As it is, our Navy, for all its difficulties, is astronomically greater and more capable than any other navy in the world. We have the ability to surge forces in times of crisis. And, yes, it creates operational problems and tensions and difficulties, but that's in large part in the nature of most important military operations. And we can do it far better and far more decisively than anyone else."
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