What happens when a Navy officer gets real on China?
The Navy’s Pacific Fleet chief of intelligence recently cemented his reputation for blunt assessments of China about as well as the Washington establishment cemented its reputation for sticking to China talking points.
Capt. James Fanell made waves during his 2013 appearance at the U.S. Naval Institute’s West conference, during which he stated that the Chinese PLA Navy’s expansion was focused on sinking an opposing fleet and largely about countering the U.S. Navy.
At this year’s USNI conference, Fanell’s assessment that China is gathering the capability to fight Japan made it to Fox News, The New York Times and several international news outlets.
“[We] concluded that the PLA has been given the new task to be able to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea, following with what can only be expected a seizure of the Senkakus or even a southern Ryukyu [island] — as some of their academics say,” Fanell said on Feb. 13, according to USNI’s coverage of their event.
For years, top military officials have couched their China assessments with words like “concern,” along with a line that they encourage China’s peaceful rise. The only thing shocking about what Fanell said to anyone who regularly follows Asia-Pacific regional security news is that he said it so directly. Last year, China did the following:
- Declared an air defense identification zone directly over the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands, and repeatedly referred to Senkaku, known to Beijing as Diaoyu, as “indisputably Chinese.”
- Had a warship lock its fire-control radar on a Japanese ship. Such radars help calculate how to direct weapons so that they hit their target.
- Sent jets close enough to Japan-claimed airspace hundreds of times, prompting Japan to respond by scrambling its fighter jets at increasing levels.
None of this means for sure that China actually wants to invade Japan, which would trigger the U.S./Japan Security Alliance and plunge China’s rise into a morass of global uncertainty. But the idea that they would have a combat plan with a country they’re clearly at odds with isn’t surprising or unusual. The United States develops all kinds of CONPLANs – concept of operations contingency plans for war, sometimes developed for very unlikely circumstances. Washington once even had a plan for invading Canada.
However, Fanell’s comments come at the same time that Washington is arranging a trip for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Beijing, with the expressed goal of enhancing U.S.-China military-to-military relationships. U.S. military officials want this relationship, among other reasons, to prevent some of the tense encounters between U.S. and Chinese ships in recent years.
In that context, Washington officials, when asked about Fanell’s comments, dismissed them.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who has been in Beijing laying the groundwork for Hagel’s visit, went a step further.
Asked about Fanell’s “short, sharp war” assessment, Odierno responded: "I've seen no indications of that at all."
That isn’t particularly surprising. The Army’s chief of staff, who is rather busy with things like a ground war in Afghanistan, hasn’t necessarily studied the naval intelligence reports of an O-6 in Hawaii.
It’s also possible that critical comments by Odierno or any other high-ranking officials could unravel Hagel’s trip. China withheld invitations to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates over policy differences in the past.
However, if Fanell’s comments are genuinely off the mark, it raises another question: Is it a coincidence that the U.S. Marines are training the Japan Self-Defense Forces in California, right now, to “retake an island captured by hostile forces”?