By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated Philip Bilden, a former military intelligence officer and private equity executive with broad experience of Asia, particularly China, as the civilian head of the U.S. Navy.
Trump has vowed to build up the U.S. Navy to 350 ships from the current 290, a move aides say is aimed at countering China's rapid rise as a military power in the Asia-Pacific.
The Trump administration on Monday raised the prospect of worsening tensions with China when it vowed to prevent Beijing from taking over territory in international waters in the South China Sea, something Chinese state media has warned would require Washington to "wage war."
Bilden emerged recently as a favorite for the position of Navy secretary over the early front-runner, former U.S. Representative Randy Forbes, a leading critic of China who chaired the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee.
Bilden's nomination, which must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, follows that of another businessman, Vincent Viola, an Army veteran and founder of a high-speed trading firm, to be secretary of the Army.
Neither Bilden or Viola has experience in government.
A White House statement described Bilden as "a highly successful business leader, former Military Intelligence officer, and Naval War College cybersecurity leader."
It said he would "bring strategic leadership, investment discipline, and Asia-Pacific regional and cyber expertise to the Department of the Navy."
“Maintaining the strength, readiness, and capabilities of our maritime force is critical to our national security," Bilden said in the White House statement.
"If confirmed, I will ensure that our Sailors and Marines have the resources they need to defend our interests around the globe and support our allies with commitment and capability.”
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former NATO supreme commander, said Bilden was an excellent choice.
"(He) is deeply knowledgeable about China, but I would not say he is close to China. Many times he has spoken to me about the need to take a firm line in the South China Sea," he told Reuters.
James Carafano, at the Heritage Foundation think tank said Bilden had a deep knowledge of cyber threats, "and understands the threat posed by rising naval powers such as China.”
The administration statement said Bilden served in the U.S. Army Reserve as an intelligence officer from 1986 to 1996. He recently retired as a co-founding member of HarbourVest, a global private-equity firm having established its Asian presence in Hong Kong.
He is a director of the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation and a trustee of the Naval War College Foundation, where he chairs the Center for Cyber Conflict Studies.
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech and Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney)