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Opinion Trump promised a 350-ship Navy. China actually built it.

Soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army Navy march during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing in October 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

President Trump has been publicly promising to build a 350-ship U.S. Navy since his 2016 campaign and he’s still campaigning on it. He will end his first term failing to achieve that goal. But according to the Pentagon, China did it — on Trump’s watch.

In June, Trump called his drive to build up the number of U.S. Navy ships “one of my top national security priorities” and declared it a mission accomplished.

“It was a very good thing that we did,” he said June 25 at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine terminal in Marinette, Wis. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be building these ships right now. We ended what was a true disaster.”

But according to the Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military power, released Tuesday, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now “the largest navy in the world,” with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines, whereas the U.S. Navy currently has 293 ships. By the end of 2020, the Chinese navy will have 360 vessels — and the number is set to keep going up, said Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant defense secretary for China.

“There is certainly more to naval power than ship counts,” he said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “This is a long-term challenge and it’s not only demarcated by a single metric of number of vessels.”

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That’s true, but it was Trump who put the focus on the ship count in the first place. And he continues to mislead voters about it on the campaign trail. Trump often brags about spending more than $2 trillion to replenish what he says was a U.S. military severely depleted under the Obama administration.

This claim is false; Trump is simply adding up the defense budgets during his presidency to get the $2 trillion figure. It’s not representative of new policies or programs he put in place. But the president often uses that number to (falsely) claim the United States is on the road to his 350-ship Navy promise.

In 2017, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. government to reach 355 Navy ships “as soon as practicable.” (Trump sometimes says 350, sometimes 355.) But Trump’s own budget proposals don’t provide the funding for that. Expert consensus is that a 350-ship Navy is impossible at least until the 2050s.

The Chinese are also on a ship-building spree, the Pentagon report states. Their projects include submarines, surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and auxiliary ships. But it’s not just about their numbers. China is focusing on building larger, more capable naval platforms that will expand the reach of Chinese military power to all corners of the globe.

“In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power projection capabilities,” the report says.

There are several other troubling aspects of the Pentagon’s new report. China is on track to double its strategic nuclear stockpile from its current level of around 200 warheads over the next decade, according to the report. The Trump administration has invited Beijing to join negotiations over strategic nuclear weapons underway between Washington and Moscow, but the Chinese government has declined to participate.

The PLA is also steadily expanding its already substantial arsenal of ground-based ballistic missiles of all ranges. The military balance between China and Taiwan across the Taiwan strait is increasingly tilting in Beijing’s favor. The PLA Air Force, currently the largest in the region and third-largest in the world, is “rapidly catching up to Western air forces across a broad range of capabilities and competencies,” the report states.

China’s military is also expanding its presence in countries all over the world, with the goal of being able to credibly offensively threaten several countries, including the United States, Sbragia said.

“It is likely that China will aim to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to, and in many cases, superior to the United States military,” Sbragia said. “The CCP’s leaders believe that China’s global activities including the PLA’s growing global presence is necessary to create a favorable international environment for China’s national rejuvenation.”

Trump can’t campaign on building a 350-ship Navy, at least not honestly. Chinese President Xi Jinping could, but he doesn’t have to campaign, because he is ruler-for-life in a dictatorship that now boasts the largest navy in the world.

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