Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on Thursday said tensions with China highlight the need for a strong Navy that can serve as a deterrent. He criticized the Obama administration for proposals that would reduce the US naval fleet.
"This just shows that we need to have a strong Navy," Ryan said at a news briefing. "We should not have a president proposing to lower our ship count to pre-World War I levels. This means we need to have a strong military and a strong Navy, and a real foreign policy, which we do not now have."
Several Chinese civilian planes recently have landed on islands Beijing has constructed in the disputed South China Sea.
"We're concerned by all of these activities being conducted by the Chinese in disputed islands in the South China Sea," Pentagon Spokesman Peter Cook said.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. But Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have overlapping claims to territory in those waters.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said, if elected, he would sail US ships through the disputed South China Sea to challenge China's claimed air and sea rights and work with other allies in the region.
In October, the Pentagon began conducting patrols within 12 nautical miles of China's man-made islands in the region.
"We need to reinvigorate our Pacific military alliance, and that begins with the United States investing the resources necessary to rebuild our Navy," Rubio, a senator from Florida, told Fox Business Network.
The assertion about the smallest US Navy since WWI has become a popular talking point among Republicans, but has been widely discounted because contemporary ships are far more advanced and significantly larger than those in use a century ago, Reuters reported.
Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Navy's Pacific Fleet, this week said he would take the Navy he has today – and its advanced technology – over the Navy of 20 years ago.