China announced last week that it would build its second aircraft carrier. China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a second-hand Soviet ship built more than 25 years ago. It was commissioned in 2012 after extensive refits.
US Navy officials maintain that vastly improved technology on its ships outweighs any disadvantage from a drop in numbers.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) January 5, 2016
Questions about whether the Pacific Fleet has enough resources are more of a reflection of regional anxieties than the Navy's actual capability, the fleet’s commander, Admiral Scott Swift, told the Associated Press.
Even if the entire fleet was in the South China Sea, he said, he would still face questions about whether Washington was deploying more forces to the region.
"It's this sense of angst that I hear from those in the region, driven by the uncertainty and the rhetoric and, you know, the challenges that the region is facing right now," Swift said. "But I'm very comfortable with the resources I have."
China claims nearly all the South China Sea, through which an estimated $5 trillion in trade passed every year. However, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have overlapping claims in the area.
As China has asserted its sovereignty in the region through land reclamation projects, its neighbors have increased their defense spending and looked toward Washington for reassurance.
The Pacific Fleet currently has 182 vessels, including combat ships like aircraft carriers as well as auxiliary and logistics vessels, a Navy spokesman told the AP. That compares to 192 nearly two decades ago.
Around the world, the Navy has 272 ships usable in combat or to support ships in combat, nearly 20% less than 1998. The current total includes 10 aircraft carriers.
Swift said he would take the Navy he has today — and its advanced technology — over the Navy of 20 years ago.
China's People's Liberation Army Navy has more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships and patrol craft, according to the Pentagon's Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy report released in August.