OXON HILL, Md. — The "chattering classes" in Washington are pushing the perception that China is besting the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific and that it could defeat the American fleet in a clash over territory, said retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who once commanded Navy forces in the region.
Blair, who spoke at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Maryland on Tuesday, denied the U.S. has lost its dominance in the region and warned the message coming from think tanks, including Rand and the Center for Strategic and International Studies — and even some in the Pentagon — could cause the Navy to lose its way at a crucial time.China has been asserting itself in the Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, where it is building and arming artificial islands amid a web of territorial disputes with some U.S. allies. "I must tell you conventional wisdom in this town up the river here a little is that the Navy's being driven out of the western Pacific," said Blair, who also served as the director of national intelligence under President Obama. "Let me be more precise, there are those who seem to believe in the event of a conflict over places like Taiwan and the Senkakus or the South China Sea, China would actually win or cause enough damage to American forces for us to pull back."
Blair acknowledged, however, that China has made a series of wise choices over the past 20 years and has been able to develop new military capabilities that are challenging the U.S. Navy's ability to carry out its mission in places such as the East and South China Seas. He said two decades ago, the Navy was able to carry out any chore in the Asia-Pacific "without scratching the paint," but he said that's no longer true. Blair had a 34-year Navy career and served as head of U.S. Pacific Command before retiring in 2002.
The People's Liberation Army Navy is within reach of its aspiration of building a force and presence capable of taking Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands near Okinawa in the East China Sea, he said. "If the U.S. Navy does not develop new concepts of operations, new ways of operating, new capabilities, China might be able to attain those goals … if they were to do that, the damage to our interests would be grave, the consequences to the region and the impact to the globe would be enormous," Blair said.
The Navy, like the other military services, has been hampered in recent years by budget caps, but now appears at a crossroads under the Trump administration, which has pledged a defense buildup and an increase in the size of the fleet."My message to those of you who are actually in the Navy … is get going, recess is over," Blair said. "Figure out how to defeat the PLA threat to the maritime missions in the western Pacific and let everyone know, the chattering classes in Washington, the Chinese themselves, that if they tangle with the U.S. Navy they will lose."