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Why Aren’t We Talking About China?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by James Currie, via Wikimedia.

Unless I’m missing something, Monday’s address by Mitt Romney was branded as a foreign policy speech. Of course, given the Virginia Military Institute venue this was really a national security address, though it isn’t surprising that a man who titles his autobiography in reference to a mythical “apology tour” appears to entirely conflate ‘foreign policy’ with an aggressive national security agenda. I don’t have much to say about the contents of the speech that smarter people haven’t already, but one thing jumped out at me: the word “China” appears exactly once, in a throwaway line:

“There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East—and it is not unique to that region. It is broadly felt by America’s friends and allies in other parts of the world as well— in Europe, where Putin’s Russia casts a long shadow over young democracies, and where our oldest allies have been told we are ‘pivoting’ away from them … in Asia and across the Pacific, where China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region … “

With only a few exceptions, Romney’s entire speech is focused on the Middle East. Of course, this is partially due to the Romney campaign’s recent focus on the death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi as evidence of the Obama administration’s negligent handling of the Arab Spring and failed overall Middle East policy. But a focus on the Middle East this extensive is myopic.

Managing China’s rise is the most challenging security dilemma likely to face the United States this century, and the US’ current mixed strategy of engagement and limited containment is unlikely to remain a viable option in the future. Assuming that Beijing’s commitment to recover Taiwan is serious — there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the 2005 Taiwan Anti-Secession Law is a hands-tying device designed to force the next generation leadership, who simultaneously have no memory of losing Taiwan and whose superpower status lessens the prestige concerns over the continued de facto independence of the lost province, to prevent a declaration independence — the US’ commitment to the region is destabilizing. China’s growing relative military strength relative to the US, in particular its development of effective anti-access/area-denial strategies, increases the chance Beijing will one day call America’s bluff. If it does, the insufficient force to back up its security commitments in the region will encourage US leaders to escalate a previously limited conflict. The next president of the United States should have a concrete plan to address this strategic problem, either by massively increasing the US military’s ability to fight in an A2/AD environment or ceding portions of the Western Pacific as within a Chinese sphere of influence; by mocking the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ Romney appears to be dismissing the entire question of strategic choices.

Romney’s single mention of China is especially puzzling given that one of the speech’s few concrete policy positions is the commitment to “restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines” as part of Romney’s goal of growing the US Navy to 350 ships; the Obama administration favors building nine ships per year, for a current goal of a 300 ship fleet. If this increase in shipbuilding is motivated by a practical strategic purpose rather than ill-defined notions of national greatness — unfortunately, Romney’s frequent remark that “the size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916” suggests that it is not — he should justify why a larger navy is important. The most credible argument for growing the US Navy is, of course, China. A larger fleet is of no use in the Middle East, and America’s ability to quickly challenge an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz is not related to the total size of the fleet (though building more minesweepers would be wise). Instead, a 350 ship strong fleet is arguable an important part of maintaining a credible military presence in the vast Western Pacific theater.

But this isn’t enough. If Mitt Romney wants to build a more numerous fleet as part of his plan to counter China’s military growth he needs to explain how this fits into his larger strategy, and why attempting to contain China — the clear implication — is worth the cost, or even possible. So far, he hasn’t.

Perhaps Romney feels that he doesn’t have to justify growing the US Navy to voters on any rational other than American greatness, or it’s simply a way of contrasting himself with Obama’s lack of “resolve”. But it is still troubling that Romney sees no need to justify a major change in US defense policy in what is supposed to be a major speech.

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