Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 22 May 2024

 

China’s Sea Power Leaves U.S. Adrift

By

Mike Waltz

and

Mark Kelly

Updated  ET

Vessels under construction at Yangzi-Mitsui Shipbuilding in Suzhou, China, March 1. Photo: Zuma Press

In his 1890 book, “The Influence of Seapower Upon History,” Alfred Thayer Mahan identified a crucial factor in the British Empire’s rise to global dominance: a battle fleet. A strong force could protect a nation’s merchant marine and maritime commerce, which could finance national power. Mahan subsequently exhorted the U.S. to build such a fleet and reap the rewards.

America today faces its most significant great-power threat since the end of the Cold War, especially on the seas. China has learned Mahan’s lessons well. Its international shipbuilding industry and expansive merchant marine, combined with its growing navy, pose a comprehensive threat to American prosperity and security.

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China uses the world’s oceans to pursue global supremacy, employing coercion and economic intimidation against weaker nations. In the South China Sea it has seized more than a dozen islands in waters claimed by its neighbors. China is using the islands as military outposts, which serve to choke off the region’s economic and natural-resources lifelines. Beijing’s games of chicken with foreign ships contravene international law, risk dangerous escalation, and deny freedom of navigation to American allies and partners.

Yet the Communist Party’s reach and intentions extend beyond regional waters. China has become the world’s top shipbuilder. It controls one of the world’s largest shipping companies and boasts the largest navy. It has built these capabilities with the help of massive state subsidies.

By flouting international standards of fair market behavior, China has secured nearly half the world’s shipbuilding market as well as control over port and shipyard infrastructure around the world.

In shipbuilding, according to a conservative analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Security, China offered $132 billion in subsidies to the shipbuilding and shipping industries between 2010 and 2018. These industries are buttressed by policies like debt forgiveness, low-interest bond issuance, equity infusions and barriers to foreign competition.

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Functionally, China’s shipbuilding industry is state-owned and leveraged to accelerate military-vessel construction. China has also invested nearly $60 billion into port projects around the world, including in such countries as Peru. Beijing makes the vast majority of cranes in these ports, including 80% in U.S. ports. Predatory lending practices enable it to gain control over facilities when poor nations can’t pay their debts, as happened in Sri Lanka in 2017.

Meanwhile, America’s commercial maritime industry has faltered. At the end of World War II, the U.S. boasted a fleet of more than 5,000 ships, which made up more than 40% of the world’s shipping capabilities. Today there are only about 90 U.S.-flagged ships involved in international trade, owing to increased international competition and scant support for the commercial maritime sector at home. At the same time, America’s maritime industrial base is shrinking.

The U.S. doesn’t subsidize commercial shipbuilders. Partially as a result, the U.S. lost 300 shipyards between 1983 and 2013. Today, only 20 U.S. shipyards can produce oceangoing vessels. Most of them, moreover, exclusively produce vessels for the U.S. Navy. The U.S. trade representative is currently investigating potentially unfair trade practices by China in shipbuilding, shipping and maritime logistics sectors, but such inquiries won’t rebuild the U.S. merchant fleet or production capabilities.

Since the end of the 1970s, the U.S. has increasingly relied on other nations to conduct trade. Today, 98% of America’s trade is done via foreign-flagged ships. Such reliance has left America less able to guarantee free access to the world’s economy. Mahan’s dictums hold true. A lack of competitiveness in maritime trade not only jeopardizes America’s ability to ensure its economic interests but also diminishes its capabilities to sustain its military power.

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The U.S. must change course urgently. In our Congressional Guidance for a National Maritime Strategy—and with the support of a bipartisan alliance of maritime officials, industry leaders and lawmakers—we encourage our nation and its leaders to address our pressing maritime challenges.

Our framework proposes investment across the maritime sector to rebuild America’s ability to create and sustain a merchant fleet and industry. It offers proposals that will strengthen the U.S.-flagged international shipping fleet, domestic shipbuilding, and our maritime workforce. It also encourages private-sector investments and streamlines burdensome regulations.

America is flanked on both sides by oceans, making our economy dependent on trade and the vessels that enable commerce. We must ensure the safe passage of U.S. exports and imports that fuel our economy.

The next step is for Congress to codify our bipartisan guidance into the National Maritime Strategy, and for the president to adopt it. That will set a course for securing America’s edge at sea, recognizing the innovative and competitive spirit of the American people.

China’s threat over the oceans and how we respond to it will shape our economic and national security for decades. As former service members, we know that the oceans ensure our path to prosperity and security, today no less than a century ago.

Mr. Waltz, a Republican, represents Florida’s Sixth Congressional District. Mr. Kelly, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Arizona.

To China's frustration, the Aukus partnership between the U.S., U.K. and Australia to deliver Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines is gaining ground, despite funding challenges to the U.S. submarine industrial base. Images: U.S. Navy/Zuma Press/AP Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the May 23, 2024, print edition as 'China’s Sea Power Leaves U.S. Adrift'.

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