Honesty Can Be Uncomfortable

February 2013


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.

Posted by galrahn in Foreign Policy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Is it that the are operating by different rule sets, or that both want to be the ones to set the rules? That comment was made at Davos last week on a panel about global security after the observation that the US and China were practically the only G20 counties without any high-level representation there.

    Honestly, I think what scares us Americans the most about China is how much it resembles ourselves, not at this point in America’s development but at various points in our past. Over history, America too has exerted muscular, regional dominance (Monroe Doctrine anyone?) and made numerous territorial grabs to extend its sphere of influence or create strategic buffers (Hawaii, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Okinawa). And over the last 50 years we have built the international governance frameworks to largely support our own objectives (and as part of our strategy of containment of the Soviet Union).

    During that period of time, how would the US have reacted to the existing powers (Spain, UK, France) being more “honest” about America in public? Would it have changed our behavior at all or led us to not take those kinds of actions?

    Finally, while I don’t doubt the facts discussed above, I do push back on the underlying suggestion that there’s somehow malicious or evil intent behind them and that this is a morality struggle. This is the pattern of how nations behave as they become regional or global powers. And while I don’t see a future where China is more powerful than the US, I think it’s obvious that the US will have less ability to exert power in the future.

    How we react and adjust to that, and what it means for global governance, is the true question to grapple with.

    • grandpabluewater

      You seem to overlook that the ruling government of China is the Communist Party. While they decided that they don’t “care if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”, the basic goal is rule of the entire world under a single political system/antireligion. In mainland China, the only survivable road to power remains allegiance to the Communist Party.

      You are discussing a choice of tactics, and a recognition that patience is the cheaper and more thorough route for the Party’s ambitions. Smoother they are, but just as bloody handed and hungry for world hegemony. We have lost sight of that to our considerable long term peril.

      Fukayama’s Folly, the notion that the collapse of communism, as defined by the reign of Stalin, marked the end of the forces that shook and shaped the world from the 16th through the 21st century (“history is ended”), has by no means run its course. It remains folly, dangerous nonsense, at odds with rational national economic and foreign policy, which may well yet result in oceans of blood and tears, and, possibly, a new Dark Age.

      “Eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty”, and “If you wish to see peace, be sure you are prepared for war”, remain the copybook headings to heed.

      “Ex scientia, tridens” (note: not intercollegiate Big Sports). From Seapower, peace and prosperity are possible, for North America at least. The price of Admiralty is pay as you go, if you have it, all good things are possible. History continues, and the hungry sea demands to be fed, as it has for the last 1000 years.

      Our grandchildren, or their survivors, will curse us for throwing away
      Pax Ocean Americana. Better we fetch it back, on the double. Else, I fear, my grandsons will inherit the “doom and pride” I received from my grandfather. Both he and I were lucky and likely I, like he, will die in bed. There was no guarantee, and, I fear, will be none for them – at best.

      Will we? All an old man can do is warn. My thanks for the chance to do so in the little time I have left.

      Morality struggle? Damn tootin’.

      • vtbikerider

        Agreed, Grandpa, but unfortunately we’ve also given our erstwhile enemies the keys to our safe deposit boxes. Pains me to shop to see how many items in a store are made in China. Virtually every major American company does huge business with the PRC whether it’s for money, manufacturing or raw materials. I don’t care how many folks try to “buy American”– that’s just symbolic; it when companies who spend billions, if not trillions in that land wake up and realize the end goal of all the cheap products and lower labor costs is to ultimately drive them out of business. In the meantime, spending all those greenbacks over there to get items made cheap just fuels the dragon.

        Not sure if that’s going to happen though. Western businesses are not known for planning that long term.

      • grandpabluewater

        For about 80 years we have used tax law to steer business owners. The solution is both simple and profound. Make the tax law favor american made industrial output in the domestic market. We have a huge advantage, an economy large enough to make foreign goods, other than certain key raw materials (lately less so petroleum stocks), optional, and to a degree, suboptimal..

        Change the laws, change the response, change the economic realities. First, however, one must get control of the levers of power, or those who influence those who wield them.

        So the essential question seems to be “Who will bell the cat”.

        Moving over 50000 factories overseas, in many cases down to the time clock by the door, is the root of our economic woes. Pity nobody can connect the dots.

      • vtbikerider

        Unfortunately, there are many out there that can and do connect the dots but don’t have the power to make lawmakers listen and change those laws. Of course, if the PRC suddenly nationalized those overseas factories or did something else that would affect the bottom line then there’d be a different response. China flexing muscles with Japan I foresee coming to no good. The JMSDF may be a nonaggressive name but if push came to shove I am sure the skill, professionalism and combat ethos of the IJN would shine through to the PLAN’s misfortune.

  • As H. Clinton once said, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” The other end of it is communism. Today, our nation is into communist appeasement. This never would have flown in the ’80’s and before. Many are hoping the regional bullying will go away. We either stand by Japan and the Philippines with the Chinese communist bullying or we are no longer reliable allies. Another point in G’s excellent post above. It isn’t just ships. PacRim emerging threats show that we are well on the way toward having an obsolete-to-the-threat carrier air wing. USAF isn’t doing so well either. F-22s with significant and growing maintenance problems (USAF internal briefs) show that the F-22 is probably for the ditch about 2030. Right when PacRim threats are running on full-steam. Another point where those in senior DOD leadership are troubled? The idea that the F-35 Just-So-Failed will provide tac-air credibility. It will not. Shining-star platforms? Thank-goodness we are still building Virginia-class subs. Summary? Our senior DOD/DC leadership attitudes toward PacRim threats in both policy and platforms better start changing. Or, the risk of war increases.

  • well you are dreaming chinese government! tell to your people the true situation of your country. because ur economy cannot sustained your so called economic productivity because of your huge populations, you want them to annihilate for at least half of your populations in order to justify that your country really indeed gain your economic stability. what a solution? your all evil creatures!

  • There is an easy way to test this article’s hypothesis: Just have the Seventh(?) fleet patrol within that patrol zone in international waters that the Chinese maritime surveillance ships used. If they are trying to discourage international intervention, it will show really quick due (number of non-military confrontations will increase dramatically). Low cost, and the US navy remains in international waters, so there is no pretext for conflict.

    Regardless, Asia is an important center of trade for the US…all our cheap Walmart products come from there (specifically China). So redeploy some jets and submarines to the Pacific, specifically to make it hard for the Chinese navy to escape the first island chain and that should reduce their ability to influence to throwing diplomatic hissy fits.

    Are the 3 choke points around China properly patrolled? ie between South Korea and Japan, Japan and Taiwan, and Taiwan and the Phillipines? Should be able to contain the Chinese navy by focusing US military resources on those areas of water.

    Finally, guessing anyone’s intentions is useless. I suggest following the existing policy of Peace through Strength, deterrence, whatever…I mean, nobody knows what somebody else is thinking so why bother? Besides which, people change their minds quite frequently.

  • Anyone who has been to China would know that they are Communist in name-only, and becoming less so each day. Every time I visit, everyone I run into is either trying to sell me something for as much money as they can get or buy something for as little as they can get. Aside from some strange smells now and then, walking down the street in a major Chinese city is little different from doing the same in an American city.

    But while they are definitely not Communists in the same vein as the Soviets, China as a country is not capitalist like the U.S. either. There is still a significant portion of their economy under control of the State, and they still have a single-party political system. However, that same lack of clear separation between the private sector and public sector is also prevalent across much of Europe as well, so that’s probably not the best judge of Communism.

    It is extraordinarily dangerous to view China through the same lens as the Soviet Union simply because they have the Communist label. They are a completely different beast and the same policies that “won” the Cold War are not applicable to China.

    • Disagree. Not when you tally up the lack of free-speech. Interesting how China gets a free-pass with displaying pictures of the murder Mao. How do you think it would fly if Germany displayed Hitler as some kind of great savior? And, we can still be tough with China and have good trade. They respect strength and have contempt for weakness.

      • RickWilmes


        The Cato article that I linked to addresses China’s lack of free speech.

        “Given our account of how China became capitalist, what can we say about the form of capitalism that has emerged in China? A persisting feature of China’s market transition is the lack of political liberalization. This is not to say that the Chinese political system has stood still over the past 35 years. The Party has distanced itself from radical ideology; it is no longer communist except in name. In recent years, the internet has increasingly empowered the Chinese to exercise their political voice. Nonetheless, China remains ruled by a single political party.

        This continuity hides a fundamental change in China’s political reality. With the death of Deng Xiaoping, “strongman” politics was brought to a closure. Under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China is no longer ruled by a charismatic leader. In that sense, Chinese politics today is qualitatively different from the time of Mao and Deng. But the Chinese government has not come to terms with this political change on the ground; there have been few efforts at institution-building to prepare China for the new political reality.

        The combination of rapid economic liberalization and seemingly unchanged politics has led many to characterize China’s market economy as state-led, authoritarian capitalism, which many people have rightly recognized as fragile and unsustainable. When and how China will embrace democracy, and whether the Party will survive democratization, are the main questions asked about China’s political future. In our book, a different perspective is offered. It provides a different diagnosis of the main flaw of the Chinese market economy: China has developed a robust market for goods, but it still lacks a free market for ideas.”

  • Scott Allen

    These potential conflicts have been in prospect for many decades. Evidence of them can be seen in the proceedings of the Law of the Sea Institute (particularly those from 1978 to 1993) and the writings of Prof. Choon – ho Park. While at the Fleet Intelligence Pacific I saw the Chinese begin their development of Woody Island in the Paracels, starting from a mere sand bar.

    They seized other islands of the Paracel group from North Vietnam. The record is quite long, and it is quite true that the US, even though not a party to UNCLOS, observes it to the letter, while China, which is a party, has declared its conflicting intentions against its neighbors and is quite ready to use forces to seize whatever it claims. Of course, under the treaty it is obligated to use the International Court of Justice or the Seabed Tribunal to settle those claims, and to abide by the decisions those bodies may hand down. It is clear that the Chinese would lose their claims if the provisions of the treaty are followed. In the 1982 declaration by the United States regarding the treaty, a document which is binding under international law, the US declares it will observe the treaty and grant other states rights under the treaty, but will not demand that other states grant rights to the US. The Defense Department supports ratification of the treaty.

    Captain Fanell’s presentation is not blunt at all. It is merely a statement based upon well documented evidence going back decades, and based upon positions wholly consistent with China’s traditional self image as the Middle Kingdom, and its view of its neighbors as tributary states. China will need a much larger navy to support these claims at sea. As it grows in wealth, it is building that navy, and it is a race between its avarice and the demands from its people for full democracy.