5 Questions with Rep. Randy Forbes on Freedom of Navigation and the South China Sea

November 9, 2015

This is the latest installment of our “5 Questions” series, in which we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering — you guessed it — five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

We’re joined this week by Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), the Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

1. Was the recent Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea too little too late? What should President Obama order the Navy to do next?

I would say better late than never, because these operations do send an important signal about U.S. commitment to freedom of the seas and international law. With that said, the failure of this Administration to conduct these operations between 2011 and last month sent precisely the wrong signal to both Beijing and America’s allies in the region. And by publicly deliberating and delaying for so long, I fear the White House has called into question both its commitment to the region and its ability to respond to provocations around the world.

With regard to what comes next, I think several things should happen.  First, the United States should continue to conduct these operations on a routine basis so that we make clear our enduring commitment and cannot be accused of escalating things when we are acting in full accordance with international law.  And on that point, I think it is also imperative that we make clear that when we go close to these artificial features we are exercising freedom of navigation in international waters—not just the right of innocent passage through someone else’s territorial waters.  And finally, I think that other nations, like Australia and Japan, should conduct their own operations to demonstrate that this is not about American and China, it’s about the rule of law and the freedom of the global commons, something we all have a stake in sustaining.

2. How do you evaluate China’s response to our Freedom of Navigation operation? Was it more muted or more aggressive than you expected? If we pursue the strategy you propose, how should we expect China to respond in terms of action?

China’s bark is usually worse than its bite. Their statements on foreign policy are often really intended for consumption by domestic audiences, and I think Beijing’s reaction to the Freedom of Navigation operations should be viewed in this context.  More significant, I think, is the fact that almost every other country in the region and even external observers like the EU voiced their approval.  Coming at roughly the same time that the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration overruled China’s objections to its jurisdiction over South China Sea territorial disputes, I think this sent a strong message that China’s activities are clearly out of step with international norms.  While I won’t speculate on China’s future actions, I think it is clear that the Chinese leadership has a clear choice going forward: either they can become that responsible stakeholder we have all heard so much about, or they can continue to unite the international community against them.

3. Two recent studies on aircraft carrier developments (including one co-authored by WOTR contributor Bryan McGrath) have emphasized the importance of stand-off range. Do you concur with their emphasis on unmanned systems? Can the Ford class ensure that the carrier remains the centerpiece of our ability to project power on and from the seas?

I have been saying for years that the reach of the carrier air wing is going to be more and more important as anti-access challenges continue to grow and proliferate.  And when you look at the design constraints on carrier-launched aircraft, I do think that unmanned aircraft have the greatest potential to fill the gap we see in long-range penetrating strike.  Long-range penetrating strike isn’t the only capability that our air wings are lacking, but in my view it is the most critical.  That is why I have been pushing the Navy and DoD to make sure they get the requirements right for UCLASS, the only unmanned carrier aircraft currently under development.  Our Nimitz-class carriers are incredible power projection assets, and the Ford-class is going to be even better.  But as I think Bryan and all the other experts would agree, our carriers are really only as effective as their air wings, and those air wings are going to need to continue to evolve to keep pace with changing threats and exploit novel technologies.

4. What does the new budget deal mean for the shipbuilding plan and our ship inventory in the next few years?

The good news is that we should be able to avoid another continuing resolution or shutdown, both of which would have disastrous impacts on training and maintenance, our shipbuilding programs, and the wellbeing of our ships and sailors.  The bad news is that while the deal locked in relatively stable level of funding for next year, it precludes the kind of increase that myself and many others have been calling for.

All in all, it means that the Navy is going to have to get by on levels of funding that are still inadequate, given all the things we are asking the service to do.  That’s why I am pleased that the revised NDAA still contains all the same policy provisions as the original bill, including new authorities for the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund that the Congressional Budget Office estimates could save several hundred million dollars on each boat in the class.  Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers and new fleet oilers also get new authorities.  All told, that could free up several billion dollars for other critical shipbuilding priorities like attack submarines and amphibious ships.  Given the constraints we are all operating under, I think we would all be very foolish to forgo those kinds of efficiencies just because it’s not the way that we have traditionally funded ship construction.

5. China’s myriad territorial disputes with other Asian nations often center on partially submerged reefs and rocks. If you had to create your own cocktail called the South China Sea on the Rocks, what would be in it?

I’m not a drinker, but I think the ingredients for a peaceful and prosperous region are clear: one part respect for the rule of law, one part free and open trade, and one part U.S. presence.