- - Tuesday, May 22, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Freedom of the seas is critical to America’s economic and political security, enabling the transportation of goods manufactured in the United States to other places around the world, and enabling Americans to obtain things otherwise unobtainable here, like bananas every day of every year. What would life be without the freedom to enjoy an occasional banana split?

Americans have taken freedom of the seas for granted when they think about ships and seas, particularly in the years following the end of World War II, when despite the tension between the superpowers nothing much happened in either the Atlantic or Pacific that America didn’t want to happen.

That’s changing. The People’s Republic of China recently launched its first home-built aircraft carrier. No more hand-me-downs from the old Soviet Union or the Russia that succeeded it. Aircraft carriers are not defensive weapons. They’re floating islands bristling with weapons of mass destruction, to project power far beyond the shores of a homeland. Together with Beijing’s plan to increase the size of its combat navy to more than 400 ships, and the man-made islands created in the South China Sea to wage war, foreshadows a coming crisis that threatens everybody’s freedom to sail one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

Seth Cropsey, who was undersecretary of the Navy in the administrations of both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, cites in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal the sobering testimony — alarming testimony, actually — of Adm. Phil Davidson, who is President Trump’s nominee for chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.

China, the admiral said, “is no longer a rising [naval] power but an arrived great power and peer competitor.” It has undertaken “a rapid military modernization over the last three decades and is approaching parity in a number of critical areas.”

Adm. Davidson had told the U.S. Senate that he reckons there is “no guarantee” the United States would win a military conflict with the People’s Republic of China. This frightening view is one that many defense policymakers share, and its one of several ways the United States failed under the Obama administration to keep pace with technological advances China has applied to its military.

There’s a long way to go merely to catch up. By some estimates the Chinese combat fleet will be bigger than that of the United States by the year 2030. Catching up will be a very expensive proposition, too, for a nation saddled with a huge debt that it might not be able to pay.

Things could be worse, and would have been without the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, enacted when a sobered Congress wanted to make sure the United States could supply troops in conflicts anywhere in the world. Getting the American Expeditionary Force and its supplies across the Atlantic in World War I had been tortuous and difficult indeed, and Congress was determined that it should never be repeated.

This law, called the Jones Act, assured the survival of the American Merchant Marine. Without it, and the requirement that all cargo moved by water between two points in the United States be transported on ships built, owned and crewed by Americans, the nation’s movement of crucial goods would have been outsourced years ago.

Some conservative economists argue that the Jones Act amounts to a subsidy that burdens the American taxpayer, as indeed it does. And a good thing, too, because the Jones Act assures freedom of the seas and on the cheap. The merchant fleet supports the military in times of crisis. The cost to replicate it, according to some estimates, would be as much as $65 billion, money America does not have and which would be better spent building combat ships to keep pace with the Chinese.

The possibility of conflict with China or other seagoing powers dictates the absolute necessity of a robust shipbuilding and repair industry together with a robust and capable Merchant Marine. The Jones Act makes that possible even if, as some economists argue, it adds a few pennies to the cost of goods that come to America by sea. The cost of not having a robust Merchant Marine when the nation needs it would be much higher, all to prevent catastrophe when the cost of prevention is highest.

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