US Navy Muzzles a China Critic

American naval officers who publically raise concerns about China’s military capabilities and intentions can find themselves sidelined, their careers stunted. That is the case of Capt. James Fanell, formerly the chief of naval intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Fanell was recently reassigned from his sensitive intelligence post. His remarks at several forums that China is preparing for war with Japan were embarrassing to the navy’s leadership, which is focused on building ties with a newly assertive China’s military.

In a controversial address to the West 2014 Naval Institute Symposium in San Diego in early 2014, Capt. Fanell said: “We have witnessed a massive and amphibious military enterprise and concluded that the People’s Liberation Army has been given a new task, 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 Senkaku, or even an island in the southern Ryukyu.”

The captain addressed his concerns mainly to specialized publications such as the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, but they were picked up by major civilian outlets such as The New York Times and the Stars and Stripes newspapers, embarrassing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was making an official visit to China at the time.

Fanell spoke in unusually blunt and even colorful language, making it more likely that the remarks would be picked up in the civilian media. In particular was his use of the term “short, sharp war” to describe the coming conflict. In referring to China, Washington brass usually speak in bromides.

Last week it was reported in the Navy Times that Fanell had been reassigned from his post as chief of naval intelligence and reportedly is to serve as an aide to a rear admiral. It is unusual to assign to full captain to serve as an aide to a relatively low-ranking flag-officer, suggesting that the brass doesn’t want him to be making any more lectures.

“If you talk about [the subject] openly, you can cross a line and unnecessarily antagonize,” said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations. It is the official view that The United States welcomes China’s rise.

Fanell also had harsh words to describe actions of China’s Coast Guard, which he calls a “fulltime maritime harassment service” specifically designed to advance China’s strategic interests in the East and South China Seas.

The Coast Guard services of both countries are the front-line troops in the festering and dangerous dispute with Tokyo over ownership of the Senkaku Islands (also known to the Chinese as the Daioyus) as well as contested islets and atolls in the South China Sea.

The Japanese Coast Guard regularly patrols waters around the Senkakus, while the Chinese Coast Guard frequently intrudes in Japan’s claimed territorial waters. The Japanese ships warn them with loudspeakers to leave the waters, while the foreign ministry lodges protests which Beijing ignore.

China is building large patrol cutters at an “astonishing rate,” the captain said. Since year 2000 13 new vessels have joined the maritime service, and more are in China’s next five-year plan. China used to convert aging destroyers for the service but recently has begun to acquire purpose-built ships. Indeed, in early 2014, Beijing proudly announced it was building the world’s largest coast guard cutter, a 10,000 ton vessel, as yet unnamed.

“Unlike the US Coast Guard, the cutters of the [Chinese Coast Guard] have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s extravagant claims,” Fanell said. “Mundane maritime governance tasks such as search and rescue, regulating fisheries, law enforcement or ice-breaking, are handled by other agencies.”

The US Navy brass itself is eager to cultivate relations with counterparts in China’s armed forces through joint exercises and frequent military exchanges, believing this is the best way to maintain peace and avoid situations that might get out of hand leading to conflict. Clearly Captain Fanell’s type of plain talk is not welcome.

This year the US Navy strongly urged that Beijing send warships to participate in the annual RIMPAC fleet exercise off of Hawaii, the largest such exercise in the pacific. China did dispatch a warship for the exercise, but also an intelligence gathering ship, creating the unusual position of a nation spying on an exercise in which it was a participant

The Fanell incident is reminiscent of the civil servants in the British government who supplied intelligence on the progress of Germany’s rearmament program to Winston Churchill when he was out of power in the 1930s, except that there is no similar figure in the US to be their champion.

Moreover, it doesn’t take secret whistle-blowers to inform the world that China has been engaged in a kind of crash rearmament program for at least the last decade. Only last week it unveiled its newest stealth fighter, the J-31, at the Shenzhen Air Show

It is perhaps ironic that while Fanell was speaking in San Diego, just a few miles to the north, Japanese Ground Self Defense Force troops were storming the beaches of the US Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. They were part of a newly constituted force of soldiers trained in amphibious landing techniques to potentially recapture Japanese islands seized by the Chinese, presumably in a “short, sharp war.”

Todd Crowell is the author of the forthcoming 'The Coming War Between China and Japan'.