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China and US Strategic Competition

China and US Strategic Competition
(Seth Cropsey, June 23, 2020)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow and director of the Center for American Seapower at Hudson Institute. He specializes in defense strategy, U.S. foreign and security policy in the Middle East and East Asia, and the future of U.S. naval power.

Cropsey began his career in government at the U.S. Department of Defense as assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and subsequently served as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, where he was responsible for the Navy’s position on efforts to reorganize DoD, development of the maritime strategy, the Navy’s academic institutions, naval special operations, and burden-sharing with NATO allies. In the Bush administration, Cropsey moved to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to become acting assistant secretary, and then principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Cropsey served as a naval officer from 1985 to 2004.

From 1982 to 1984, Cropsey directed the editorial policy of the Voice of America (VOA) on the solidarity movement in Poland, Soviet treatment of dissidents, and other issues. Returning to public diplomacy in 2002 as director of the U.S. government’s International Broadcasting Bureau, Cropsey supervised the agency as successful efforts were undertaken to increase radio and television broadcasting to the Muslim world.

Cropsey was previously a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asia Studies Center.

Cropsey’s articles on national security and foreign policy have been published in Commentary, Foreign Affairs, The Public Interest, The National Interest, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Washington Times, and other national journals.

Transcript

Robert R. Reilly:

Introduction

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute’s online series of lectures made necessary by the peculiar circumstances under which we are living now. I am delighted to welcome Seth Cropsey to the Westminster Institute. He is a senior fellow and director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute. Seth specializes in defense strategy, U.S. foreign and security policy in the Middle East and East Asia, and most importantly on the future of U.S. naval power.

He began his career in government at the U.S. Department of Defense as assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and subsequently served as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. In the Bush administration, Cropsey moved to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to become acting assistant secretary, and then principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Seth Cropsey served as a naval officer from 1985 to 2004.

He also has experience in public diplomacy and served as director of the editorial office in the Voice of America (VOA). Seth supervised the agency as successful efforts were undertaken to increase radio and television broadcasting to the Muslim world. This was when he was director of the U.S. government’s international broadcasting bureau.

He has previously been a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asia Studies Center. Seth’s articles and monographs on national security and foreign policy have been broadly published. We are delighted to welcome him today to give us a perspective on U.S. seapower in the Pacific and the challenge of a rising China.

Seth Cropsey:

Thank you, Bob, for that kind introduction. I am happy to be with you today and your viewers. It would be nicer to be there in person, but this is life for the time being. So I have some remarks and then I look forward to trying to answer the questions that have come in in the meantime, but as they say, let us start from the beginning.

History

The last time that China was actively a genuine sea power was in the 16th century. An admiral named Zhèng Hé (鄭和) made several voyages from China as far distant as the Horn of Africa. And along the way he stopped to invade Vietnam with a loss of thirty thousand Vietnamese lives, and demands for tribute from other Indo-Pacific states. The fleets that he commanded were serious naval vessels, enterprises. They included large ships by the standard of that day and by later standards up to the nineteenth century, and included for example water-tight compartments.

Chinese naval architects in the sixteenth century understood about dividing a ship’s hull so that if there was a break in part of the hull, the water that came in would not sink the ship because they could close off parts of it. And just as a reminder about Chinese technology, that development did not begin to arrive in Western ships until the nineteenth century, so three hundred years later. They had single rudders as opposed to a pair of them that had to be maneuvered from the stern, so it was a solid naval enterprise backed up by a strong commander and good technology.

That lasted until the next emperor. The new emperor decided that naval power was an expensive luxury, and he ended voyages, and he ended China’s maritime focus. What he did instead is he concentrated on consolidating power and expanding the Chinese continental empire. That policy continued more or less uninterrupted through Mao Zedong.

Mao

Mao wielded absolute power over the Chinese military. No one did that as successfully until the current General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping. And Mao was content with a small vessel coastal defense force, a coastal naval defense force really. So things like aircraft carriers or ocean-going destroyers were not part of the picture.

Mao’s successors preserved the Communist Party’s political grip on China, but changed the country’s economic system so as to allow entrepreneurs at the same time that China’s rulers maintained a vast system of state-owned enterprises that is important to Chinese rulers’ continuance in power today for the same reason as it was then because it employs millions of people, and, by the way, whose loans from state banks are largely nonperforming, so it is a real drag on their economy, but they find it a necessary one because of the employment that it brings.

The China Card

The U.S. had already played the so-called China card, that is to say Kissinger’s idea of distracting the Soviets by befriending China. The policy that Kissinger and Nixon put in place continued long after they left office and up to the current U.S. administration, that is to say up until this administration. That policy hoped that China’s increased economic reforms would somehow lead to political reforms, increasing demand for political freedom, and the incorporation of China into the liberal international order. It is important to remember today that none of this happened, none.

For the past twenty-five years China has been using a significant part of its growing wealth to become a sea power as well as to maintain its position as Asia’s great land power. So let me just give you a thumbnail sketch of what this has done, the ongoing attempt over the past quarter century to become both a sea power and a land power, which they already were.

Increasing Accomplishments

So what we see today is a growing surface and submarine course of increasingly modern and capable naval vessels. Just to give you as an example, when I was the Under Secretary of the Navy, relations between the United States and China were warmer than they are today. One of my colleagues, an Assistant Secretary of the Navy, went to visit China and spoke with the Commander of their submarine forces, who asked him this question, “Do your crews who return from a patrol on a nuclear-powered submarine normally go to the hospitals for a period of thirty days for observation to see if there is any sickness from radiation?” Well, of course not, but years ago that was an issue for the Chinese Navy. It is not anymore, they have handled that problem, just a small example.

Their accomplishments include the construction of one aircraft carrier, the renovation of another which is used as a training carrier, and a third that is under construction. Accomplishments include large and increasing land-based naval aviation forces that are capable of conducting operations at sea against U.S. and allied navies. Other accomplishments include a large force of anti-surface ship missiles, again, launched by all media; from the air, from ships, from land, including two missiles, DF-21 and the DF-26, that are specifically designed to target American carriers underway at a distance of at least a thousand miles. Whether they can do that is not known, but that is what they are aiming to do using satellites, links with other of their ships at sea, submarines, cyber-capabilities, and of course, the missile itself, which combines the information that it would receive to be able to hit a large deck American naval vessel at a large distance.

Strategy

So what is the short-term strategy here for China? It is to deny the U.S. Navy access to the area within and slightly beyond the first island chain, and for those who might be unfamiliar with the first island chain idea, it is a reference to the islands that bracket China’s east coast. So there is a string of island nations beginning with Japan, including Taiwan, including the Philippines, that if you look on a map, you will see brackets the Asian mainland at a distance of several hundred miles, in some cases more. Successful control of that area would keep us out.

It is important to note that the waters between the first island chain and China are international waters. They are not territorial waters, they do not belong to anybody. But the ability to control those waters, sea power in those waters, would prevent or greatly complicate the U.S.’s ability, our ability to communicate with our treaty allies like Japan and South Korea, as well as the Philippines, Taiwan, and ultimately, as Japan sought to do in World War II, with Australia and New Zealand.

Power Projection

China’s construction of aircraft carriers includes those that will equal in size the largest carriers of our fleet. We do not know how extensive their aircraft carrier construction program is, but it certainly indicates China’s intent to project naval power globally. You do not build an aircraft carrier because you plan to invade Japan or Taiwan because you have the land-based naval aviation right there so there is no reason to build aircraft carriers for that. That is not a reason to build aircraft carriers; projecting power globally is.

This idea of global power projection is supported by China’s investments in port facilities from Myanmar to Pakistan, to the Horn of Africa, to Israel, to Greece, to Spain, to the Baltic states. It is global. Chinese global ambitions are also evident in loans to countries and states, especially ones that cannot afford to repay, like in Africa and Oceania, and Oceania is sort of the second island chain, the islands in Micronesia that Americans are familiar with because of the island hopping campaign that the United States conducted in World War II.

Why is that important today? Because seizure and holding those islands and having them on China’s side, and perhaps using them as bases or port facilities would be a problem for the U.S. Navy if it were to operate closer to China. It would be a problem in their back. And a lot of these nations are not able to – as I said – repay the loans so the loans themselves have spawned a term called debt diplomacy. You loan the money and then you hold the guy who cannot pay you back to account for various things that you want. Loans to African states for infrastructure that are not paid back are resulting in increased Chinese leverage there. Other examples of understanding China’s global strategy: their intent to sell 5G technology globally, to control supply chains of strategic equipment like chips and rare earth minerals. They all fit together with international purchases of strategic real estate, as I was mentioning, port facilities.

The China Dream

So the strategic game is to expand the area of strategic competition with the United States and its allies – and this is extremely important – so that conflict is everywhere, it is not just limited to traditional forms of kinetic warfare where fleets oppose fleets or airplanes oppose other combat airplanes or armies fight armies. The Chinese see the battlefield with the United States not as a conditional battlefield, but as a global one that involves commerce, economy, trade, technology, everywhere, in all those places.

They seek to advance their effort to achieve what General Secretary Xi Jinping calls the China Dream. Those are his words, the China Dream. China Dream is a plan not merely to become the hegemon of Asia, but to displace the United States as the world’s great economic power, as well as displace the United States as the world’s great military power.

What If They Succeed?

So I think it is important to ask yourself this question: what would the world look like if China succeeded? I think it is useful to think about what China has done over the past twenty or thirty years. What would the world look like? Think about the Orwellian surveillance of the Chinese people by their government’s technical means. Think about the brutality of incarcerating millions of Uyghurs, Muslims in China’s west, in concentration camps. [Think] about the Tiananmen Massacre of thousands of students by the supposedly enlightened Chinese leadership of the time. Think about China’s ongoing threat to use force to reunify (as they call it) Taiwan.

Look at the broken promise that we see today, the promise to allow Hong Kong freedoms of its Fundamental Law. Do not forget China’s ongoing international theft of intellectual property, not just in the United States but in Europe. Consider its illegal claims to the international waters of the South China Sea, and again, its broken promise not to militarize the islands that it illegally seized and built in the South China Sea. You know China explains and tries to justify these and other violations of international norms and laws with the all inclusive phrase ‘Chinese characteristics’. If Chinese characteristics become international characteristics, the world’s progress towards democratic popular government, government by the people, that began in 1776 will stop and move quickly in reverse.

Why Seapower Matters

So I would like to consider for a moment how and why sea power is so important in the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China. Sea power and our power to project reassures our allies around the world, especially by the continued presence of our ships and our ports. Our sea power lets our allies know that we can be there to help defend them, and in a visible way they are there. It protects the sea lanes of communication that are essential for the export of American goods, and it is critical to our economic well-being. It gives us the ability to protect American interests abroad, and project power internationally, and keep crises from approaching our shores.

Importantly, it does not depend on arrangements for basing of U.S. forces in other countries. It does depend on logistics, ships, and that is another question because we do not have enough of them at this point, but that is a subject for a different time. Sea power is important in the form of ballistic missile submarines that are the most reliable deterrent against nuclear attack from any enemy because they cannot be seen. Sea power is essential to the security of any maritime power, and we are a maritime power surrounded by oceans and seas on three sides.

We have been a maritime power since the Revolutionary War. And speaking of the Revolutionary War and our status as a maritime power, it is really important to remember that our status as a maritime power was recognized by the founders not only in the Constitution’s requirement that a navy be maintained as opposed to an army raised as necessary, but also in the decisions of Thomas Jefferson, who had not been a navalist before he became president, and had a rather iconoclast idea that the United States could be protected by a large number of small gunboats with one cannon each that would be sort of a coast guard.

When he saw what was happening to American shipping in the Mediterranean, especially the predations of the Barbary Coast pirates, he changed his mind quickly and started building big ships. So the understanding that the United States is a maritime power, that its economy and security depend upon maritime power and the ability to project it goes back to the Constitution and our earliest presidents, but let us get back to today for a moment.

U.S China Policy

I want to look at what the U.S. has done about China and see if we can say something useful about U.S. strategy today. For forty years U.S. government policy has been to favor inclusion of China in international organizations. I am talking about things like the World Health Organization and, for example, the World Trade Organization.

We gave China Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status permanently (it used to be renewed on a yearly or bi-yearly basis) in the Clinton administration. The goal of this U.S. policy put together has been to make China what is called a ‘stakeholder’, a term repeated by American presidents for decades now, a stakeholder in the liberal international order.

What can I say? This policy has been the major failure of U.S. foreign policy over the past four decades. The U.S. is gradually, slowly awakening to this today, and it is a complicated task because of our economic relationship with China. We get cheap stuff from them. Voters like cheap stuff, understandably.

American Awakening

But what are the signs of the awakening? Well, the Pentagon has identified emerging great power competition as a major security challenge that faces the U.S. today, and that means China more than anyone else (at the risk of stating the obvious). The Trump administration has been trying to secure protection against intellectual property theft as part of its trade policy towards China. In the past few days a Senate Subcommittee issued a highly negative report about Chinese telecommunications companies that operate in the United States. One of the places where there is bipartisan agreement is the recognition that China is not a friend of the United States, and that it presents us with serious and growing challenges to our national security.

What is odd is that this recognition has been slow to come to the Defense Department. After three years of Defense Department budget increases that helped address the readiness problems that were caused by budget cuts during the previous administration, future increases of the defense budget are extremely small. They are insufficient to cope with China’s naval armaments program. Our defense budget will increase by a tiny increment in the next fiscal year.

Now, you might account for this by considering the huge amounts of money that are being spent to protect the economy during the pandemic. On the other hand, China’s GDP is expected to fall by 6.8% this year. The annual Chinese Community Party meeting that was held late last month approved a military spending increase of 6.6%, so their military budget is going up by about almost exactly the same amount that their GDP is expected to decrease, so that is a big problem for us.

If we are not going to build up the fleet – and I say the fleet is important because any future conflict with China (if it comes to that) is going to involve the navy, it is a naval theater, we are not going to be conducting land operations on the Asian continent, not in China.

No Naval Strategy

Other problems. We have no clearly articulated naval strategy for China, and this complicates our ability to make intelligent decisions about what kind of changes are needed in the ships we build, how the war games that we conduct should be designed, how our forces should be trained, how they should be coordinated with allied forces. And it is not a strategic choice to say defeat the enemy. That does not tell you anything. It is correct, but it does not tell you what to do.

And there are competing and not always the same strategic choices. I will just list a few of them, not all of them, that would take a while. One would be to sink Chinese naval and more merchant shipping. Another would be to blockade China by sea, and as well by the U.S. Marines seizure of choke-points between China and the Middle East, in other words land between which there are waters through which must pass if they are going to China or from China, between China and the Middle East and Europe. Another possibility is to degrade China’s second strike submarine nuclear force.

Conclusion

So there are choices, many of them, others that I did not mention, but there are no articulated decisions. And as a result it is very difficult to make decisions about, as I said, the fleet architecture, what kind of ships we build, how we train, how we equip, what kind of war games we conduct, how we think about a war with China if such a thing were to break out. Let us hope it does not.

Just put that aside for a moment. Even if we were to meet the administration’s goal of three hundred and fifty-five ships in the next few decades, it would require a sustained annual increases in our ship-building budgets of about thirty percent more than the average ship-building budgets have been for the past thirty years. That is a lot of money. We have not shown the willingness to spend it yet.

We have not made strategic choices and continue on the same path of dividing money between three services more or less equally, which has not always been done. The Eisenhower administration did it differently, apportioning more money to the Air Force for strategic deterrence during the early years of the Cold War. And that money came from the army, and Eisenhower do not forget was Chief of Staff of the Army, so it is possible to make strategic choices in the defense budget.

Look, I am not the only person who is saying that we have a problem with China. When the current commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Davidson, testified to Congress a couple of years ago, he said that if there was a naval contest between the United States and China, that it was impossible to predict the outcome. Now, you might say okay, it is always impossible to predict the outcome, but that is a rather strong statement made two years ago by a senior admiral who is now responsible for our forces in the western Pacific, the Indo-Pacific.

Notwithstanding, the American people I think are not aware that China is seriously challenging the status that we have held since World War II as the world’s dominant sea power. And all of that put together makes for a troubling situation and I am happy to try to answer questions.

Q&A

Hypersonic Missiles

Robert R. Reilly:

Seth, in what was is the United States Navy undergoing measures to counter the new hypersonic anti-ship missiles that China purportedly has, several of which could take out an American carrier?

Seth Cropsey:

Where the United States has a hypersonic missiles program in place, we will have hypersonic missiles and I expect they will be very good ones. No one has a successful defense against them, and more investment is needed in the research that is needed to protect against hypersonic missiles.

Robert R. Reilly:

When I asked a former senior admiral what would be the consequences for the U.S. Navy of the east Chinese hypersonic missiles, he said simply that the navy would have to stand off a further distance beyond their range, but it would seem to me all the Chinese would have to do is keep increasing the range and pretty soon the U.S. Navy is out of the picture.

Seth Cropsey:

Well, yes and no. If we do not develop defenses against hypersonics, it would be the first example I know of in history where one new weapons system has not been countered by newer technology, so I am confident that we will develop those [newer technologies].

Robert R. Reilly:

But not as of yet.

Seth Cropsey:

…but they are not there now and at the same time when we have the hypersonic missiles themselves, let us assume (which is a reasonable assumption), that they can be launched from land bases, from ships, and from airplanes, by the Air Force, so that exposes at least an equal vulnerability in China. So that should not be ignored in thinking about this question. If we had no hypersonic missiles and an enemy had them, we would be in a much worse position than if we were able to retaliate by causing equal damage with the same missiles.

Artificial Islands

Robert R. Reilly:

May I ask how significant are the advantages China has gained through its militarization of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea?

Seth Cropsey:

They have succeeded in getting away with violating an international principle of freedom of navigation on international seas. That is probably the biggest achievement. The little islands that they built and the little islands that they occupy, put military forces on, are more effective in substantiating their claim to the international waters during peace than they are if conflict broke out. Those little places are not strongholds. They are not easily defended if for no other reason because of their size and so they would be vulnerable in a conflict.

Sea Lane Vulnerabilities

Robert R. Reilly:

You already alluded to China’s vulnerability regarding certain sea lanes which abut countries friendly to the United States if not outright allies. Can you speak a little more about how we are taking advantage of those vulnerabilities, leveraging those vulnerabilities?

It seems apparent that China is showing its muscle, letting the countries in South and East Asia know that it is the boss. However, as you alluded, China has certain vulnerabilities in sea lanes that are vital to it for instance, with keeping its oil and so forth that it is not in control of. Whereas it is flexing its muscles, it is the United States and its allies or friendly countries, thinking of emphasizing to China its vulnerabilities in that respect.

Seth Cropsey:

So what do we do? We conduct freedom of navigation operations. We have been able to get some allies to do the same thing. There is growing awareness in Europe that this is a problem for them as well. That is all good stuff, but the answer to your question lies in the issue that I discussed about articulating a strategy.

We have not articulated a strategy anything like the strategy that we did during the Cold War where the so-called maritime strategy of the time said, and practiced, and trained, and built ships and planes for the express purpose of exploiting the Soviet’s vulnerabilities in the north, and in the Mediterranean, and in the Pacific by going after their port facilities, by going after their bastions of ballistic missile submarines, and by (generally speaking) distracting attention from the central front. That was the strategy. If they had problems on their northern and southern flanks from the sea and on their Pacific flank from the sea, it would mean a distraction of effort from the central front, concentrating on the Fulda Gap.

We have not articulated a strategy like that. I think that the correct approach here is to ask ourselves what is it that China values most? And I think the answer to that is what the Chinese rulers value most is their continuance as China’s rulers, and that depends upon the ability of the Chinese economy to perform and the perception among the Chinese population that their rulers are providing them with a better life and a more prosperous one.

If China’s ability to export and to import raw materials and export finished goods is choked, interrupted, or stopped, then the deepest questions about the continuance of that prosperity are raised. That is why it seems to me that sinking their naval fleet and going after their merchant ships and making it impossible for them to export and import by every means that we have in our control, including holding the choke-points through which ships pass makes sense as a strategy.

Public Diplomacy

Robert R. Reilly:

What do you see as a public diplomacy strategy? You were once involved in public diplomacy in your work at the Voice of America. It seems China has already reached the stage of strength where it can through economic means effectively intimidate its neighbors or attempt to as it has Australia when Australia asked for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, it cut Australian imports, or it will sink some fishing boats and put the Philippines in its place, which now no longer wishes to have joint operations with U.S. troops. Is there anything short of the naval strategy that you are espousing that might help an overall strategy?

Seth Cropsey:

Yes, I was trying to say the exact opposite, that we should not depend simply upon military forces as a defense against what China is trying to do, but that their efforts were to turn the whole world into a battlefield economically, commercially, diplomatically, financially in every way, technologically. I think that the current administration’s effort to prevent friends and allies from using Chinese 5G technology is essential, is good, is part of what Vice President Pence called when he spoke at Hudson almost two years ago, a whole-of-government approach to China. I think he is right and that that is what is required.

Strengthening relations between the United States and its allies and partners, especially in Asia, is extremely important. I think we can do a lot more for Taiwan than we have done, and that measures that ought to be considered include recognizing Taiwan, [and] more coordination with Japan in the form of combat information centers that allow the easy transmission of data and communications between the two forces.

But on the diplomatic side there has not been a more important moment for us to reconsider the conventional wisdom that maintains that a coalition or an alliance of countries in Asia is impossible. It may not be possible, but I think it is definitely worth the effort. And I hear more and more people from Asia saying exactly the same thing, and I mean people from countries that have not always been on friendly terms with Japan and whose memories extend back clearly to World War II. When they start saying that some kind of a greater coherence is needed and greater cooperation and possibly even a formal arrangement, that is a sign that we ought to be taking leadership in trying to form one.

China Perceives Weakness

Robert R. Reilly:

Seth, I asked an Asian expert, why did not President Xi simply wait another five, ten years by which time it most likely would be too late? It would have been too late for the United States to react in any substantive way that would have had the potential to thwart the China Dream. And the response I got was they will just keep that low profile, which had been China’s strategy for some time and hide your strength. The response I got was well, they already think the United States has reached the point of weakness that they cannot do anything about it. Now, do you agree that that is China’s assessment of the situation and of the condition of the United States? Have they misjudged us?

Seth Cropsey:

I cannot prove it, but I agree. I do not think anybody can prove it, maybe the intelligence services can prove it. Yes, I think that our failure to take stronger measures has induced them, has encouraged them to accelerate the timetable, to be more aggressive. Weakness or indecision or hesitation, call it what you want, some combination of them, always does the same thing. It encourages aggression and that is what we are seeing.

Robert R. Reilly:

And through that aggression has incited finally a response from the United States, which you earlier had characterized as bipartisan. In other words, they have provoked the very thing that they would normally have wished to avoid. And maybe they are not worried about it because they think the United States is too far gone to seriously challenge China now.

Seth Cropsey:

Well, I do not share that opinion, but I certainly can understand how the Chinese could reach that conclusion. I ended my remarks a moment ago by talking specifically about Americans’ understanding of China, and more equally important the misunderstanding that we remain the unchallenged, dominant, global naval power. If we continue to think that and do not realize what has been happening year by year at an accelerating rate, things will go very badly.

But there is the possibility, and I am not pessimistic, but there is the possibility that that growing bipartisan understanding of the threat that China poses will lead to more strategic decisions about the defense budget, more strategic decisions about what our defense policy is and ought to be, certainly a greater appreciation of the importance of whole-of-government solutions, of an understanding that the competition that we have with China goes far beyond the military one, and that our policy needs to recognize that.

COVID

Audience member:

Given the outbreak of cases of COVID in ships such as the USS Theodore Roosevelt, do you foresee a curtailment of cooperative actions with allied navies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, or others in order to limit the spread of the disease? If so, how would that affect interoperability, such as joint exercises or port visits, with allied forces and the US Navy’s general preparedness for conflict in response to China’s growing aggressive actions?

Seth Cropsey:

I do not think that the COVID problems that the navy has had are likely to decrease joint exercises with other countries. Their ship is over here and our ship is over here, and you are not going to get COVID transmission over a thousand yards of water, so I do not see that as a problem. Port visits? Yes, that could be a problem. More testing is one answer to that. Making sure that crews practice social distancing and other recommendations of the government and certainly the requirements of the military is what is going to happen, it is happening already.

But it is important to remember a couple of things. First of all, the population of people who are aboard ships are at the lowest vulnerability to the virus, notwithstanding the fact that the virus can be passed among twenty year olds or twenty to thirty year olds. And the other is that the problems with the Roosevelt came up during peacetime, and that was a large fulcrum. That was the fulcrum in the dispute of what to do about the Roosevelt.

You remember that the argument was that the captain, the commanding officer, was that taking these risks during peacetime that could result in death was questionable. While if there was a war going on, it is something that would be a different matter. And I think that is a reasonable position. I am confident that the military and the navy in particular are going to handle the COVID problem and I am not concerned about relationships with allies suffering as a result if for no other reason that a U.S. ship could enter a foreign port and just be there and be seen there without any of the sailors going ashore, which would disappoint the crews mightily, but it would by our presence demonstrate our support.

New Carrier Force

Audience member:

How aggressive do you think China will be with it’s new carrier force? Will it play a support role or will it become the center piece of their naval strategy?

Seth Cropsey:

I do not know. I raised that question in my remarks and I appreciate the followup. It depends upon how many carriers they build and when they have learned what they need to know in order to operate carriers effectively, it will depend on how they operate the carriers. Are they going to be deployed to the Mediterranean? If they are, then there will need to be a large buildup of aircraft carriers in order to support that because x-number of aircraft carriers in a fleet does not mean x-number of aircraft carriers deployed. In order to keep one carrier permanently on station anywhere in the world, we need a few. We need one that is training, getting ready to replace them after their six month deployment. And we usually need one in intermediate maintenance. And we often need one in refueling, which takes several years and costs a lot of money.

So the answer to that is going to emerge as China’s aircraft carrier construction program develops. The more they build, the clearer it will become that they are building them in order to project power globally, which is what I think they are doing, but the evidence is waiting.

Audience member:

Why is China choosing now to encroach upon Hong Kong? What does this reveal about their intentions and interests?

Seth Cropsey:

Actually, it does not reveal anything. What we already knew is that China is extremely uncomfortable at the prospect of any challenge to its empire, and China considers Hong Kong part of its empire, notwithstanding its promise to not alter the Fundamental Basic Law, which allowed the continuance of Hong Kongers freedoms for fifty years after 1997. So I do not think we have learned anything that we did not already know, which is that the Chinese leaders are deeply insecure and that any sign of democracy or independence or freedom in places that China considers part of its empire keeps Xi Jinping and his colleagues awake at night.

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