The United States Navy launched an expansive buildup under the Trump administration to counter China. But veteran national security officials say the more immediate challenge may come from President Joe Biden.
The battle for control of the seas could play a decisive role in future American-Chinese relations and global stability. China touts the largest naval fleet in the world, with several aircraft carriers under construction over the next decade. Strategy documents from China indicate that it sees the expansion and projection of its naval strength as critical to challenging the United States. A former Trump administration official urged Biden to preserve gains in shipbuilding.
"Maritime competition is if not the key area of competition, one of the key areas along with cyber and airpower," the official said. "Do you want to live in a world where the economic and security rules are set by the People's Republic of China? That's what's at stake over the next 10 years or so."
The Trump administration designed new plans to build up a 500-ship fleet by 2045 and put longterm financial resources into doing just that. In many ways, the effort to rebuild the Navy started from the ground up, as the fleet fell into disrepair during the meager defense spending of the Obama administration. By 2015, America's fleet shrunk to its smallest levels since World War I with 284 warships. At the end of the Trump administration, the Navy returned to a force size of 299 vessels, with at least 79 future ships under contract for construction.
The Biden administration did not return a request for comment.
The Trump administration dealt several heavy blows to China's growing aspirations to control the high seas through its naval buildup, Russ Vought, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, told the Washington Free Beacon. He called the Obama era "a real low point."
"If we're going to really be able to prepare to counter China, American maritime supremacy has to be leading the way," Vought said. "It's crucial to the fight. … This comes out of a coherent, longterm historical strategy."
The United States Navy may be the strongest deterrent against Chinese aggression in Taiwan. It regularly sends warships to maneuver past the tiny island nation in a show of strength. Those cruises, known as "freedom of navigation operations," doubled under the Trump administration. Seth Cropsey, the director of the Center of American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, said that maintaining a strong American presence off the coast of Taiwan is crucial to defending against China.
"Deterring China from attacking Taiwan is high on the list of what I hope President Biden and his national security advisers are thinking about as they try to proceed," he said.
Though the Navy enjoyed increased focus from the White House in the past four years, officials and experts voiced concern to the Free Beacon that Biden may scale back expansion amid budget battles. Critics said that the Navy became sclerotic during Biden's tenure as vice president. The Obama administration's most ambitious naval plans aimed at making warships and planes more eco-friendly, rather than expanding the branch—an initiative that critics called a financial and security disaster. Biden's defense picks have similarly argued that green energy and environmental efficiency should be atop the Pentagon agenda. Bryan McGrath, a defense consultant and former Navy officer, said that the environmentalist agenda should not be mistaken for national security priorities.
"They made some of this 'Great Green Fleet' seem like it was more important than capacity and capability," McGrath said of Obama's defense team. "Efficient operations aren't always the most effective operations."
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) urged Biden to continue the ship buildup rather than get sidetracked with pet environmentalist initiatives.
"The Biden Administration would be wise to continue the bicameral and bipartisan effort to achieve a 355 ship Navy," Cotton said. "Regaining maritime primacy is a critical component of our ability to compete with China and maintain peace through strength."
The Navy did not return a request for comment.