A set of excerpts from the interview Peter Navarro did with Cropsey as part of Dr. Navarro’s research for his book and film: Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World.
A Shrinking Navy is a Sinking Navy
Cropsey: If you look at the current trajectory, the US Navy could be down to fewer than two hundred ships by 2030. In the current budget cycle, we could go from slightly over a hundred deployable ships to 75 or so within the next five or six years. So this is a real situation. It’s going to have real consequences for America as a great power, certainly for America as a Maritime Power.
Why China’s Aircraft Carriers Matter Strategically
Cropsey: What are the Chinese building aircraft carriers for? Do they expect that they’re going to equal 11 if we maintain that number? It’s possible given the long-range strategic thinking that is more characteristic of China than it is of the United States. However, the much more likely explanation is that what they aim at is projecting power in the area around the Western Pacific and near their particular part of Asia, from Northeast to Southeast Asia; and we have treaty alliances with five countries there. We have relationships with others that we constantly develop. And even a small Chinese aircraft carrier fleet would increasingly raise doubts about whether the U.S. carrier fleet there, which now consists of one ship, will be able to deter what China has launched. So, I think that what’s very much on their mind is the hegemony that generally Chinese foreign policy is aimed at and specifically that hegemony established at sea. And an aircraft carrier is an extremely effective way of doing that.
The Wedding of Drones and Flattops
Cropsey: So long as there are powerful militaries, the militaries are constantly being transformed, by technology, by tactics, by geographical necessity, by real world events, by lessons learned from other people’s conflicts; and there is much greater emphasis now than there was fifteen years ago, for example, on unmanned aircraft, on unmanned submarines, on unmanned surface ships.
Drones can extend the range at which an aircraft carrier can launch strikes at an enemy target because a drone is likely to have greater range than the aircraft that we now have and the ones that are projected in the future.
At the same time, by producing smaller underwater vessels at lower cost — and the same thing is true on the surface — one could extend the range and get certain economies that we don’t have right now; and that’s the direction that we’re going in.
And I think that were this interview to be conducted 25 or 30 years from now — and I’m happy to do it then — that we’ll see that the planes flying off an aircraft carrier’s decks are going to be weighted much more towards drones than they are towards manned aircraft. That does not invalidate the aircraft carrier as a platform. It does have consequences on the kinds of planes that are used to project the power that an aircraft carrier has.
Weak American Alliances in Asia Mean a Weak American Economy
Cropsey: If other countries in the world see that the rest of Asia is looking more toward China than toward the United States for security, for alliance protection, and as a great power, it will absolutely effect the American economy’s ability to sell goods there and to be present as an economic power. So, economics and security and alliance relationships, and in the end, our status as the dominant maritime power in the world, cannot be separated from what happens in the future between our naval force in the Western Pacific and the one that China is building.
The Lesson From England “Eating the Dutch’s Lunch”
Cropsey: If the United States turns into a smaller state, with a lesser Navy, a reduced ability to project power, and a decreased economic presence, the momentum will shift naturally toward China. The same thing has happened in history many, many times.
The Dutch Republic was a great trading empire in the 16th and 17th century, but they didn’t build much of a naval fleet to protect it. And when the English developed as a great naval power, you can say they ate the Dutch’s lunch as far as being able to do what they wanted on the high seas. And that diminished Holland as a navy, and it ended Holland as a naval power and diminished it as an economic power. So there is a connection between security and economics and I agree with you that the taxpayer who asks: “why do we have to spend money to preserve security relationships?” can be answered, we don’t have to, I’m just saying there’s a consequence.
Abandoning Sea Power Is Abandoning World Power
Cropsey: Those countries that have prospered because of sea power and have forgotten or abandoned that sea power have suffered economically, their security has been diminished, their status as a great power has disappeared. And they never recovered it.
Americans don’t understand the history. They haven’t looked at it. They don’t realize the fact that our power, our status as a great power, is inseparable from our status as a dominant naval power; and the corollary is that if that dominant naval power is surrendered, there is no example in history of a country being able to recover it.
Athens would be the first one case of note. Athens sat a critical point in the Mediterranean. It had a competition with its land-bound neighbor, Sparta; and the original strategy in the war between Athens and Sparta was not to confront the Spartans who were more powerful on land but to retreat within the city and to maintain the city’s security and economy by trade; and that trade would be seaborne. This strategy was followed for a while. However, Athenians then forgot their own good advice; and they started to try to engage Sparta on land. They also let their sea power go, and they lost the war. They never recovered their sea power. Their existence as a great power ended.
China’s Authoritarian Repression and Hegemonic Intentions
Cropsey: The immediate goal in China is hegemony. Is to be the overlord of Asia. And they’re very focused on that, and they’re doing everything that is consistent with that strategic goal. And that places us at odds with them.
The Chinese regime today is fundamentally an authoritarian regime. There is the Communist Party that holds power, and it has no intention or desire of giving it up. There is no effective opposition to the Chinese Communist Party, and they do pretty much what they please both domestically and in foreign policy.
What they please in foreign policy that affects us is they are trying to become the hegemon of Asia — the great power of Asia to the exclusion of anybody else. And that includes the United States, which is the only other serious competing power throughout the entire region.
Obama’s Wishy-Washy Half-a-Pivot To Asia
Cropsey: What is the best course for the United States in preserving its presence in the Western Pacific? The first thing is that presence means presence. So we need to be there.
When President Obama and his administration spoke of the pivot to Asia that was eventually changed to the rebalance to Asia, it made it seem as though we were going to take China as a possible strategic competitor more seriously. So that was a good thing.
But in order to rebalance to Asia and to become more assertive, that requires both a diplomatic strategy and a security plan. On the diplomatic side, the administration has done I think a reasonably good job. They’ve reached out to potential friends. They’ve reached out to friends and allies. Those are all good things.
But what the Obama Administration has a less clear hold on is that there is a connection between soft power diplomacy and hard power, which is the military. And on the military accounts, this administration has reduced defense spending by a half a trillion dollars since he came into office. And its plan is to reduce military spending by another half trillion dollars that will continue even after it leaves office.
That does not send a signal to those in Asia who look to us for security and friendship and support that we’re serious. It sends a signal that we’re sort of wishy- washy. We take the diplomatic side seriously. We take the security side not so seriously.
American Weakness Invites Chinese, Russian, and Iranian Aggression
Cropsey: As long as there is human character and as long as fundamental motives of self-interest and ambition and fear exist, there are going to be nations led by people who see weakness as an invitation. That’s no different today than it was when Thucydides described all three — ambition, self interest, and fear — as the primary motives of foreign policy and national policy.
If the U.S. falls away from the position of strength that it built up in the 20th century, especially after World War II, it will invite more situations such as the ones were seeing today: The possibility that Russian ambitions will extend into the Baltics and other parts of the Soviet Empire that Putin would very much like to reestablish and that Iran will be emboldened to continue in its nuclear weapons program.
These are all countries that look at the United States and say: “hmmm, they used to be there but it seems as though they’re going away.” Or they’re war weary. Or they don’t have the money anymore to spend on defense.
And that [perception of American weakness] will cascade. That will produce more situations that threaten our allies and eventually will threaten us.
America Is Destroying Its Asian Alliances
Cropsey: What’s the best the best way to manage alliances? Well, I’ll tell you what the worst way is. The worst way is to say we have alliances with you, and so you have to do the job. We’re going to farm it out to you. We’re going to outsource it. You take care of security in your region. That guarantees a mess and failure.
The alternative to that is to say as the leader of this alliance or as the greatest power in this alliance, we will take the lead; but we expect that you will do your part. And the fact is that many of our treaty allies in Asia are trying to do their part. A lot of the Asian nations that are threatened by Chinese territorial claims, fishing rights, sovereignty and so on, are trying to build up amphibious capability.
They’re trying to build up their surface ship fleet so that they can defend their particular fishing interests or mineral interests or territorial interests. That’s all a good thing.
But, for the United States to expect that those countries either solely or in the aggregate can equal China that has the second largest defense budget in the world is unrealistic and inconsistent with the history of successful alliances.
The Withering of America’s Shipbuilding Industry
Cropsey: A Naval fleet is a very complex thing, and it requires ports for ships, and it requires roads and rail lines to supply those ports. It requires ships, crews, maintenance, and not the least, it requires people who know how to build good ships. And that’s called the industrial base, the defense industrial base — in this case, its the industrial base that supports the Navy.
Now it’s very simple: If you don’t build enough ships, then the number of people who know how to build them will look for other jobs; and that’s what has happened to the sea power industrial base of the United States steadily since the end of the Reagan Administration. Under the Reagan Administration, the Navy was building twelve, fifteen, as many as sixteen or seventeen ships per year. Today, we’re lucky if we turn out six.
And so that means that the number of people who work in shipyards decreases and the number of people who are master shipbuilders goes down because there is no employment. And if you continue this out for a decade or so, you end up with a situation where if we ever decide, “well, we want more ships,” we’re going to have to wait the five or ten years it takes to develop the expertise to build a good ship again. And that is a major risk to the United States.
On the other hand, China is turning out lots of ships, many ships per year. It’s building several classes of attack submarine. It’s building patrol boats for closer to shore duties. It’s building destroyers, frigates, ballistic missile submarines, and aircraft carriers. And, in addition, China maintains the largest merchant marine fleet in the world, and that also requires builders. The skills between building naval ships and merchant ships are not always the same because of the combat systems and the latter. But China has a flourishing defense industrial base. They have a flourishing shipyard industrial capacity. And they’re using it. And we don’t. We have very good people. They produce very good products, but the size of the community that does that is decreasing.
If we do not have the people who know how to build good ships; and it takes us ten or fifteen years to produce them, that means that if a large and dangerous event occurs that requires sea power response, we’re basically screwed until that industrial base can be brought up to speed again. And ten or fifteen years in those terms is a long time.
How War With China Starts
Cropsey: How would a war with China start? I think the most reasonable idea is that it would not start because the United States or China decide “we want to go to war.” I think right now the most likely cause of war would be a miscalculation.
China decides, for example, that it can take the Senkaku Islands; and Japan is too weak and the United States is too weak or else the United States will not honor its treaty obligations with Japan. Or the United States will find itself too occupied with other things in order to support the Japanese.
And so the Chinese decide: “Okay, now we’re going to do it.” And it turns out they’re wrong. Japan defends itself vigorously and calls on the United States for back up. The United States then honors its treaty obligations in the expectation that it can contain the conflict over the Senkakus and resolve it in favor of Japan. However, the calculation is wrong, and the war widens.