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Will a Sinking Fleet Sink the Clinton Pivot to Asia?

12/17/2015 01:04 pm ET | Updated Dec 16, 2016

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If ABC really wants to get serious this week about holding a substantive presidential debate, here's one of the most important questions moderators Martha Raddatz and David Muir should ask the front runner:

Secretary Clinton, four years ago almost to this day, you announced on the pages of Foreign Policy magazine an American pivot to Asia in recognition of the economic and strategic importance of the region. Was that policy explicitly aimed at containing a rising China and has the Obama Administration's pivot to Asia been effective?

Such a question may well turn out to be far more a foreign policy vulnerability for the Clinton campaign than even issues that Republicans love to flog like the 2012 Benghazi attack. The problem starts with some basic pivot math.

As part of the Clinton-Obama pivot, the Pentagon announced it would increase the percentage of its total naval fleet dedicated to the Pacific from to some 60%. However, the US naval fleet has been steadily shrinking from its high of more than 500 ships during the Reagan years of the 1980s down to the less than 300 today. Moreover, because of continued and massive defense budget cuts, the fleet now seems destined to fall into the 200-ship range.

What this steadily shrinking fleet means to experts like Professor Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College is this: By the year 2020, the United States will have the "same amount of combat power" as when the pivot began in 2011. This is because while the relative distribution of ships may indeed shift to the Pacific, the absolute numbers are declining. In math terms, 60% of a smaller fleet will lead the US pivot exactly back to the grossly inadequate place in Asia where it started.

As to how such a smaller fleet may affect radically affect the American risk calculus in Asia - with disastrous results - Yoshihara provides this perspective:

The basic argument for dramatically shrinking the US fleet is that our weapon systems are far more capable than systems even 10 or 15 years ago and so our increased quality will make up for any decline in quantity. However, I go back to the dictum that quantity has a quality all its own; and a sunk ship is indeed a sunk ship. So if we have fewer assets that we will be able to use in theater, we will be less and less willing to risk a smaller fleet that, per unit, is more valuable to us. And what that means is we're going to play right into China's strategic calculus which is to raise our perceptions of our cost and risks in intervening in issues that China cares more about. This makes it even more likely that we might hem and haw and decide not to act at all over some contingency in nature involving China including, say, a war over Taiwan.

To this sobering conclusion, Yoshihara's co-author and colleague at the Naval War College, James Holmes, has added this further pivot twist: Many of the ships that the Pentagon will be counting in the pivot to Asia column in the future will be small littoral ships that are not "high end combat assets." To Holmes: "As diplomatic signals go and as deterrent signals go, this makes the pivot a pretty bush-league thing."

What we appear to have here, then, is the exact opposite of one of the most famous phrases ever uttered by an American president: "Walk softly and carry a big stick." Indeed, instead of following Teddy Roosevelt's deterrence dictum, the United States is pivoting loudly - and merely angering a Beijing fearful of containment - while waving the smallest of pivot sticks.

Here, Senior Fellow Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute drills down further on this little stick problem when he observes that: "The United States has already cut its defense budget by half a trillion dollars and is aiming for another half a trillion." To Cropsey:

That does not send a signal to those in Asia who look to us for security and friendship and support. That doesn't send a signal to them that we're serious.

As for the broader problem that falling defense expenditures create for the ultimate goal of deterrence, Heritage Foundation Research Fellow Dean Cheng has succinctly put it in this peace through strength way:

A United States that is weak is a United States that cannot stand by its alliance commitments is a United States whose credibility is open to question. Conversely, a United States that is strong, that is firm in its alliance commitments is much more likely to deter conflict.

Given the importance of America's alliances in Asia, the real question is how to best manage these relationships. American Enterprise Institute Resident Scholar Michael Auslin has provided arguably one of the most nuanced analyses of the present "worst of times" situation. To Auslin:

The issue is not whether America has enough men and women and planes and ships in the Pacific - it has had 300,000 troops forward deployed for close to half a century. The real question is: "What are we there for?" And the ultimate fear of our allies is that even with these 300,000 troops, America might not have the political will to uphold the very order that it helped create.

From these observations, it should be clear why a serious discussion of America's pivot to Asia must take place during the presidential debates. It should be equally clear why no candidate has more to answer to on the pivot question than the Democratic frontrunner.

As for whether the Clinton-Obama pivot to Asia is containment, University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer offers this "realist" view:

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration did pursue engagement. There was little evidence of containment. And you could do that in the 1990s, because China was then weak enough that it didn't matter. ... But we're now reaching the point where China is growing economically to the point where its going to have a lot of military capability, and people are getting increasingly nervous. Hilary Clinton, who is married to Bill Clinton, and pursued engagement in the 1990s, is now the principle proponent of the pivot to Asia; and she fully understands that it is all about containment. Of course, what's going to happen here, given that we live in the United States, is that we're going to use liberal rhetoric to disguise our realist behavior. So we will go to great lengths not to talk in terms of containment, even though we're engaged in containment, and even though the Chinese know full well that we're trying to contain them. But for our own sake and for our public we will talk in much more liberal terms. So it's liberal ideology disguising realist behavior.

Hillary Clinton should have the opportunity to respond to this Mearsheimer critique. Perhaps somebody in the press will ask the right question.

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Peter Navarro
is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series, from which the quotes in this article are taken. See www.crouchingtiger.net for more information.

Follow the 2016 Presidential race at Real Clear Politics.