(Note: The writers address the question, “Should the U.S. bolster its fleet to offset China’s growing naval strength?”)


WASHINGTON — Addressing the “Shangri-la Dialogue,” the most important annual conference on security in East Asia, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis described China’s increasingly aggressive military posture in the South China Sea as a strategy “of intimidation and coercion.”


Aiming to cow the nations that rim the sea — from the Taiwan Strait to the Malacca Strait, encompassing the world’s busiest commercial waterways — into recognizing Chinese sovereignty across the region, Beijing has, over the last decade, created and militarized a string of “islands.”


More frequently than not, the Chinese have simply dredged the surrounding sea beds to make land where there was none, then overlaid airfields, port facilities and barracks, in the process creating new strategic and geographic facts.


Beyond these moves, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy has become the dominant force in the area. While Chinese ships still lack the sophistication of U.S. Navy submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers, they’re getting better; China recently began building a large-deck carrier capable of carrying the sort of powerful air wing heretofore only found on American flat-tops.


More importantly, the Chinese fleet is there — continuously present both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea — while the U.S. fleet is not; the U.S. 7th Fleet spends as much or more of its time passing through these waters on the way to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.


Chinese maritime forces also include a substantial coast guard and a “maritime militia” often tasked with the harassment of the fishing boats and other commercial vessels operated by other Southeast Asian countries. What was once an “American lake” is no longer.


In many ways, the littoral seas of the western Pacific have become what the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall were during the Cold War: points of confrontation between the United States and its principal great-power antagonist.


Indeed, the situation may be worse, for the Chinese military, and navy in particular, has shifted its mission from increasing the risk to more powerful U.S. forces to projecting power in a way that challenges American supremacy.


Beyond the so-called “first island chain” of the Pacific, the Chinese navy is more and more adventuring eastward into the Philippine Sea and west into the Indian Ocean.


The Chinese even have established a permanent set of facilities — a “string of pearls” — ringing the Indian Ocean, and a base in East Asia.


Beijing aims to “rule the waves” in and around its neighborhood.


In sum, there is no clearer measure of rising Chinese geopolitical influence than its maritime power.


Not only are these critical arteries of global commerce, thrumming with the trade that has made East Asian economies the engines of global prosperity, but they are essential elements of the regional peace that, since the end of World War II, has enabled such development.


Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India, to say nothing of the developing democracies of Southeast Asia, will not easily countenance Chinese “intimidation and coercion” — there will be conflict, even if we continue to look the other way.


Over the last generation, the U.S. Navy — and more generally the Defense Department — have failed to understand or respond adequately to the Chinese challenge.


Instead, a series of presidents has imagined that the desire to become rich would make Beijing a “responsible stakeholder” — the dream of the second Bush administration — rather than a waking dragon bent on rectifying several centuries of outside imperial dominance by Europe, Japan and the United States.


At this point, anything short of a crash program of naval and other military modernization, measured not only in new classes of warships and other systems but in a larger force, will make a difference.


Numbers matter as much as quality; no technology can make a ship be in two places at once. Whenever an American carrier battle group undertakes a “freedom of navigation” cruise in the South China Sea, the Chinese just smile and wait, knowing that, in a matter of days or weeks, it will be gone again.


Thomas Donnelly is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He holds a masters in international public policy from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Readers may write him at AEI, 1789 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036.