The last few years have marked the return of great power competition, primarily between the United States and China. Our leaders have finally remembered what they had no right to forget: Human nature never changes, and the desire for conquest will always create conflict.

However, though our eyes have been opened, we remain woefully underprepared.

This was made clear on March 28, when U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro admitted a disturbing imbalance of military resources to the Senate Committee on Appropriations: “By 2028, we will have approximately 291 ships or so. ... I can’t predict exactly what the Chinese will have, but estimates are upward of 440 or so.”

In other words, China is on a fast track to displace America as the world’s dominant naval power.

“Whoever rules the waves rules the world,” as naval theorist Alfred Mahan said. What’s more, China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, a tyrannical regime that commits literal genocide and actively seeks to enrich itself at America’s expense. If Beijing succeeds in overtaking the U.S., it will not just mean a change in global leadership; it will mean a change in the rules of international politics, and not one for the better.

This is true with regard to economics and diplomacy, but especially so with regard to our Navy. Too few people fully understand or appreciate the fact that our ships do more than defend allies and partners from invasion; they also guarantee freedom of navigation on the open seas.

For decades, the U.S. Navy has eliminated piracy, prohibited extortion and ensured that virtually every country on the planet has the ability to trade — and it has asked nothing in return. That will end if Beijing uses a more powerful force to overturn our maritime supremacy.

That Beijing seeks to do so is undeniable. Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized the importance of a strong naval force that can project power, stating: “The strongest nations are victorious at sea; those in decline are weak.”

China’s 2015 defense whitepaper further suggested that the People’s Liberation Army focus on “maritime military struggle” to achieve China’s geopolitical objectives. Beijing has also challenged the law of the sea countless times, using everything from fishing boats and artificial islands to warships and fighter jets to advance its illegal claims and restrict innocent passage in the South and East China seas.

Meanwhile, just one of China’s 13 naval shipyards has greater productive capacity than all seven U.S. shipyards combined. That is not especially surprising given that some in our government seem content to export all domestic manufacturing.

Our resources are limited, but maritime supremacy is a possession of immense, almost invaluable benefit. Don’t the stakes in this conflict merit a response from the Biden administration?

The answer is obviously yes. According to Secretary del Toro, “we find ourselves at another such inflection point, one that demands we renew our commitment to naval primacy as we chart a course through this century of intense maritime competition.”

But President Joe Biden apparently didn’t get that memo because his budget request for the Navy and Marine Corps is about 2% below inflation. In other words, the White House wants to cut the Navy’s funding when it’s already losing ground. It makes no sense when the production of the Columbia-class submarine is 10% behind schedule and that of the Virginia-class submarine is “significantly behind.”

There’s another problem here, too, which is how the U.S. Department of Defense invests the money it does have. Instead of using funds for basic tasks like shipbuilding, the Pentagon has been spending more and more taxpayer dollars on obscure experiments conducted by third-party contractors under the guise of research and development.

In short, the government can and should invest in technological innovation, but not at the expense of production. America won World War II in large part because it outcompeted and outproduced the Axis on the factory floor. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of overspecialization that doomed our enemies in the past.

If our leaders want even the slightest chance of maintaining U.S. maritime supremacy — and all the benefits it brings to the American people and the world as a whole — they need to reorder their priorities and accelerate our nation’s shipbuilding.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said: “A good navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” If so, we are setting ourselves up for conflict. That needs to change.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He also serves on the Foreign Relations and Appropriations committees.

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