China Power

Time to Counter China and Rebuild the US Navy? 

Recent Features

China Power

Time to Counter China and Rebuild the US Navy? 

A former U.S. Pacific Fleet Naval Intelligence chief testifies to Congress on China’s maritime ambitions.

Time to Counter China and Rebuild the US Navy? 
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers/Released

Retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell’s assessment of China’s goals, capabilities, and probable path in the increasing modernization and size of its forces was laid out last week in remarks to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Hearing on “China’s Worldwide Military Expansion.”

Fanell’s 64-page testimony is an important read for analysts and interested parties of all stripes, whether or not one ultimately agrees with all of his conclusions or recommendations.

As much treatise as testimony, the arguments presented by the intrepid former head of Naval Intelligence for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet could not have come at a more opportune moment: China just landed a nuclear-capable aircraft on an island in the South China Sea. The action underscores Fanell’s detailed premise on China’s ambitions, and supports his central argument that the United States must comprehensively recalibrate both China policy and China-related behavior, while rebuilding the U.S. Navy to levels that can at least match China’s projected naval strength. He projects that “in 12 years, the PLA Navy most likely will have twice as many warships and submarines as the US Navy.”

Fanell is well-known in policy circles for his frank and unvarnished analyses of China’s long-term political and military mission and its strategy for achieving it. He is also known for having been removed from his post as Chief Intelligence Officer shortly after giving a paper at the 2014 WESTConference, sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Center, in which he predicted that China might be preparing for a “short, sharp war” with Japan. The prevailing American political atmosphere at the time stressed supporting the rise of a peaceful China, not challenging it, or couching China’s growing power in terms of a threat.

Fanell offers an intriguing insight into the distinction between himself and other China hands: “I spent 28 years watching what China does with its navy — like Jane Goodall watching gorillas — every day, observing and recording their movements. Then I analyzed their activities and projected what they’ll do next.”

By using a scientific method to arrive at and draw his conclusions, Fanell is able to layer his testimony with an equal blend of logic and learned expertise, adding a legitimacy to his predictions that a more politically-minded analyst might not have.

Fanell’s central premise is that “the strategic balance has shifted in the PRC’s favor and against America’s security and interests.” However, he continues, it is not just America that is compromised by China’s military expansion; it is much of the rest of the world, as well.

“China’s unilateral expansion into and through the international waters within the First Island Chain—or what Beijing now calls China’s ‘Blue Territories’—over the past six years has dramatically altered the strategic balance of power in the Indo-Asia Pacific region,” he argues. In addition, Fanell cites Chinese “unprecedented and increasing naval operations” from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, as “empirical indicators” of China’s future intentions and naval behavior.

Dubbing the coming decade from 2020 to 2030 as the “Decade of Concern,” Fanell also details the significant support mechanisms which China has acquired to enhance its naval capabilities throughout the world. Largely through “commercial” transactions that are ostensibly part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has been buying and developing ports worldwide, “employing a ‘first civilian, later military’ approach to port development.”

Ultimately, testifies Fanell, “Xi and the CCP’s realization of the ‘China Dream’ of national rejuvenation, and restoration, is firmly linked to, and dependent upon, a global naval capability.” Despite China having a GDP per capita “on par with the Dominican Republic,” huge amounts of “national treasure” have gone into modernizing the PLA Navy, and the military as a whole.

Fanell’s testimony includes a strong assertion that the “rejuvenation” and “restoration” that is central to Xi Jinping’s China Dream is to be able to take Taiwan back by force by no later than two years from now. Therefore, Fanell testifies, a strike on Taiwan could happen at any point from 2020 on.

Fanell’s final assessment is stark. “America needs to get back to being a maritime power supported militarily by strong allies… Without that, expect China to push us ever further from Asia… and (to) ultimately be seen as irrelevant globally… We have already slipped. If we fall any further, we may not recover.”

Perhaps, however, there is some basis for a bit more optimism than those most dire of circumstances.

First, the China Dream might not be as much a China dream as a Xi Jinping dream. Reports out of China from both within and outside of the Party indicate that thinking Chinese — and there are many of them — are disillusioned. As one former Party member recently said privately, “The rich guys hate him. They want him gone.”

Xi, who will be 65 next month, skillfully maneuvered to have himself crowned president for life; he could conceivably continue as China’s leader for the next 25 years or more. Certainly, 2030, the date by which Fanell observes that China’s navy is on a trajectory to be twice the size of the U.S. Navy, is well within Xi’s reach.

But the Party has traded off any idea of political reform for continued expansion of economic reforms, and an ever-increasing standard of living for all. Will Xi and the Chinese people risk international isolation and condemnation to take Taiwan by force? Fanell makes the case that after Tiananmen Square in 1989, the world didn’t wait long before flocking back to China to make deals. He is right. But Tiananmen occurred at a time before China had begun to make major economic strides. The economic impact then of even a longer period of resistance to Chinese exports, for example, could have been borne. Not today. Today, China is reliant upon its place in the global economic order to survive. It is doubtful whether Chinese leadership other than Xi Jinping is willing to risk any level of economic decline or worse, knowing what effect that would have on the legitimacy of the Party.

Second, as Fanell himself points out in his section on Oceania, China and the West are in a “battle for the hearts and minds” of the people. If China is to win hearts and minds, the CCP and its emissaries need to undergo a drastic change in personality. As anyone familiar with the demonstration of Chinese power can attest, it is in its personal propaganda war that China is weakest. It has failed miserably in Hong Kong, where the mainland is largely held in contempt (and the feeling is reciprocated). The nations of Southeast Asia and Oceania have dealt for millennia with a domineering Chinese presence; they may take China’s coin now, but they have no illusions about the true nature of the relationship.

Third, the predicate for the realization of the plan as described in Fanell’s compelling testimony is continued Chinese economic success and growth. However, as his testimony itself often states, instance after instance of Chinese purchases abroad are made by Chinese companies that are themselves in the red. The state is subsidizing those purchases. But on what solid economic basis? China is deeply in debt, on the national as well as on provincial and municipal levels. Economic realities may interfere to block the level of military expansion and modernization which is currently planned and projected in China.

Fourth, the formula works if the genie stays in the bottle. It is true that too large a portion of young, educated Chinese have fallen victim to the uber-nationalistic propaganda of the Party. Ironically, however, everyday working-class Chinese may have a stronger voice. They do not want to slide back down a ladder they are only just now beginning to climb. No one who witnessed the spontaneous surge to Tiananmen Square by all sectors of Chinese society in 1989 should have any illusions about the willingness and ability of the Chinese people to speak for themselves when the moment and the cause is right.