I met my wife because my school district allowed me to play soccer for her High School, as my High School didn’t have a soccer team. On the day we met I had my head shaved all the way around the sides and the in back, but I featured a huge flop of long brown hair on top that I would pull back into a pony tail when playing soccer on the field. I dressed in big baggy jean pants and often wore very large T-shirts or flannel shirts untucked. I frequently would wear either a pair of combat boots or good ole fashion ‘Chuck Taylor’s’ as a fashion statement… because it was the early 90s baby! and in the era of grunge that’s what a legit grunge nerd from the country who played sports in an inner city school in the south like me thought cool and tough was supposed to look like in order to avoid fights. Fortunately, or not, for me… during my Senior year the woman I would eventually marry told me she wouldn’t go on a date with me until I cut my hair and learned how to dress. She was blunt and honest the day she looked at me in the eyes, put her hand on my cheek, smiled, and told me that on the inside I was attractive to her, but on the outside I looked like a complete idiot and she would not be seen in public with me until that changed. Her honesty made me uncomfortable, and it forced me to make decisions, but sometimes things need to be said.
During the panel discussion on the Chinese Navy last week at the USNI West Conference in San Diego, Captain James Fanell, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence and Information Operations for US Pacific Fleet had some “bracing” comments about the Chinese Navy. When I quote “bracing” I am actually quoting Sam Roggeveen of the Australian Lowy Institute Interpreter blog.
What makes the comments “bracing” is that they are both blunt and honest in commentary. Sam noted the Captain’s comments like this:
Fanell’s language is, well, bracing. He calls China ‘hegemonic’ and says it displays ‘aggression’; he claims China ‘bullies adversaries’ and that it has become a ‘mistrusted principal threat’. Watch Captain Fanell’s presentation from about 21 minutes into the above video, or read below for some more select quotes:
- (China’s) expansion into the blue waters are largely about countering the US Pacific fleet.’
- The PLA Navy is going to sea to learn how to do naval warfare…Make no mistake: the PRC navy is focused on war at sea, and sinking an opposing fleet.’
- On China Marine Surveillance, which supervises and patrols China’s claimed maritime territory: ‘If you map out their harassments you will see that they form a curved front that has over time expanded out against the coast of China’s neighbours, becoming the infamous nine-dashed line, plus the entire East China Sea…China is negotiating for control of other nations’ resources off their coasts; what’s mine is mine, and we’ll negotiate what’s yours.’
- China Marine Surveillance cutters have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s expansive claims…China Marine Surveillance is a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organisation’.
- In my opinion, China is knowingly, operationally and incrementally seizing maritime rights of its neighbours under the rubric of a maritime history that is not only contested in the international community but has largely been fabricated by Chinese government propaganda bureaus in order to “educate” the populous about China’s rich maritime history, clearly as a tool to sustain the Party’s control.’
Sam Roggeveen is right to describe Captain Fanell’s comments as “bracing,” because it has certainly been awhile since we have seen an American in a public forum speak the truth about China in this way. While we will never see an American diplomat speak like this, nor does the opinion of a US Navy Captain carry the weight of, say, a four star Admiral; this is still very powerful commentary when it comes from a man who is responsible for the evaluation of all intelligence gathered by Pacific Command every single day.
Is China’s expansion into the blue waters largely about countering the US Pacific fleet? Captain Fanell mentions in the very next sentence that his assessment is primarily informed by China’s development of specific platforms, naval armaments, and training. You don’t have to be an expert to come to similar conclusions, as there is only one ship in the world that China would spend vast resources towards developing an anti-ship ballistic missile to specifically mission kill – a US Navy nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Similar to the US, there are several places where Chinese naval tactics development are discussed openly in the context of information and technology from an academic perspective, and nearly every one of those discussions focuses on defeating the weaknesses specific to the US Navy. It’s noteworthy that the pundit class in state media believes the PLA Navy is vastly superior to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, thus only the US Navy is a peer to challenge. Personally, I think that is a bad assumption, but it is also unclear if the public pundits truly represent what PLA Navy officers believe in private. When one considers the tension between those two nations today, overconfidence can lead to frightening outcomes due to miscalculation, and nobody wants to see that.
Is the PLA Navy going to sea to learn how to do naval warfare? For the most part, yes, but I do question how we quantify the activities of China’s hospital ships. With that said, apparently all the PLA Navy practices in exercises is indeed combat with other naval vessels, and the exception other than the hospital ships people like to site actually appears to reinforce the rule. For example, it is often suggested that China’s anti-piracy deployments represent China’s embrace towards contributing maritime security to the global community. I used to believe that, and I would like to believe that, but how can I ignore the facts developed from years of consecutive deployments? The PLA Navy consistently deploys three ships to escort large commercial vessels that travel at a speed far too fast for pirates to effectively engage. The PLA Navy escorts these ships in an internationally recognized transit corridor that is already heavily patrolled by the international community and pirates largely avoid. The PLA Navy is protecting ships that already have armed private security personnel. For a nation that thrives on information campaigns and propaganda for domestic consumption by their people, there really is a remarkably limited number of stories that describe any actual anti-piracy work being done by those PLA Navy ships. As an observer, when I look at what the PLA Navy is doing with their anti-piracy patrols, all I can think about is what a fantastic place that is to monitor US Navy operations off of Yemen and EU naval operations off Somalia! After a few years of observing the PLA Navy in practice, I refuse to believe the primary reason the PLA Navy is cruising back and forth at high speed with three navel vessels is to protect commercial vessels that have less than zero chance of actually being attacked, much less hijacked by pirates. Therefore the PLA Navy is there for reasons we can only speculate, but given the nature and record of Chinese engagement both public and private globally, that speculation must include purposes of espionage. Everything about PLA Navy deployments in the name of anti-piracy looks like a long distance learning opportunity, and despite the steady propaganda stream from ships on that deployment, those activities show scant evidence that the PLA Navy convoy escort mission is truly about practicing anti-piracy.
Is China bullying neighbors for control of maritime territories? Even a casual reader of American newspapers or cable news realizes the answer to this is obviously yes, because that is what China’s neighbors are saying themselves. Even more noteworthy China doesn’t apologize for their behavior, they simply make more threats. The pattern of escalation continues to increase as well, most recently involving PLA Navy warships marking a Japanese naval vessel and helicopter with radar lock suggesting potential missile engagement. In that context of belligerent aggression for maritime territory, Captain Fanell describes the China Marine Surveillance cutters as having “no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s expansive claims” and claims the organization “is a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization.” It is a bold claim few have made publicly before, but it does raise the question – what other purpose does the CMS serve? In an article published December 29, 2012 Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the China Society of Military Science made it clear that China’s so-called “self-restraint” might not last much longer. The context is very clear, China is who is restraining themselves from others who are occupying maritime territories of China, in China’s opinion.
As I observe Captain Fanell giving his personal opinion (and Sam Roggeveen does note in this article that Captain Fanell’s opinions are that of a Captain, not the US Navy officially), I see his comments as an honest evaluation of Chinese activities at sea that also makes me a bit uncomfortable. It is too bad we have to get such refreshing blunt talk from a Navy Captain based in Hawaii as opposed to a Flag officer in DC, because the approach of publicly skirting what China is doing without calling them out is not containing or limiting the belligerent behavior of China when they engage their neighbors in disputed maritime territories – indeed every month it appears China has escalated tactically a little more. I was shocked and a little unnerved today when I saw an anti-war editorial in the Global Times English edition, because I can’t remember the last time I saw such a thing. An anti-war editorial in Global Times is the equivalent of an editorial in Newsmax downplaying the threat of a nuclear Iran; it’s that extraordinary and unexpected. And its mere presence raises a serious questions: how close is China to war with Japan if Global Times is publishing an anti-war editorial?
In terms of how the Chinese handle their propaganda, is that not a significant deescalation step? Is the tension becoming too comfortable?
At every level of government and business in the United States, and likely most of our allies, America is being subjected to a relentless and persistent cyber espionage campaign with the theft of technology and information at the forefront of the efforts, and the Chinese government – despite having the worlds most sophisticated and actively engaged internal internet security and monitoring technology in the world – does nothing to stop it. Over the long term, unless you honestly believe China will buck every historical trend and sustain growth indefinitely, the United States sits in a very favorable position relative to China and is in a very comfortable position to allow China to mature as the nation continues to rise economically and militarily. In the short term however, particularly as the tensions of demographics, energy, and environment start to bubble over the surface in China over the next five years, we need to ask ourselves if there is any danger of China looking for a distraction with an external neighbor as those internal problems start to really bubble over. History tells us that the rise of every nation to any legitimate form of regional or global power usually leaves a trail of blood. Is there strong evidence coming from China today that suggests the rise of China in the 21st century will be an exception? I pray it will different this time, but given the trends of coercion, disruption, theft, and belligerence I see no reason to expect the exception.
It is past time for the United States to start being more honest about China in public like Captain Fanell was at WEST, even if it does make people uncomfortable, otherwise our political leaders are going to find themselves in a war no one expected to come; the business community will find themselves in a war they are incapable of supporting; the American public will find themselves in a war they do not understand, and even if it is a small war it will still be felt globally; so it is unlikely anyone is prepared to deal with a war that includes the worlds two largest trading nations. With Japan and China each fielding multiple ships to the same regions with several hundred sailors on both sides serving on those ships, recognize that even a single small naval battle between those two nations could kill a lot of people very quickly.
Nobody wants to see a confrontation between China and the US, but where is the evidence that both countries are playing by the same rule sets? When folks operate by different rules on the road, eventually there is an accident.
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