Willful blindness about Chinese aggressive moves

Chinese dragon

Photo by Eva Heinsbroek

It was reported in the Wall Street Journal on February 22 that “an outspoken intelligence officer” for the US Pacific Fleet has ruffled feathers in Beijing and Washington by issuing warnings about belligerent Chinese intentions in the South China Sea.

Captain James Fanell, Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the Pacific Fleet, stated at a maritime security conference that China is training for a short, sharp war with Japan, and that he expected China to start using its new aircraft carrier to enforce its expansionist territorial claims in the South China Sea.  As a result of his comments, Captain Fanell is described as “one of the US military’s most outspoken hawks on China.”

It is also reported that US defense officials have been debating whether to reprimand Captain Fanell for making these public remarks at a time when the Pentagon is trying to “ease tensions between China and Japan and improve military ties with Beijing.”

Having worked in the government, I well understand the importance of exercising great care in what one says about sensitive security matters when occupying an official position.  But it is irresponsible  that anyone would consider reprimanding Captain Fanell for articulating a very well-founded concern.

Is it “hawkish” to voice what is arguably a very reasonable fear of aggressive behavior by a rising power?

It would be not unreasonable to come to such a conclusion if one were utterly unaware of China’s relentless military buildup, its constant theft of American military technology, its expansionist territorial claims throughout the East Asian region, and its pointedly aggressive actions to enforce those claims in certain key potential flash points.

South China Sea mapA pattern of Chinese aggression

  • China is claiming jurisdiction over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in a dispute with Vietnam.

  • It claims the Spratly Islands (also in the South China Sea) in a dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam.

  • As part of its efforts to enforce its claims on the Spratlys, China built structures on Mischief Reef in the 1990s, which could be characterized much more as military installations than the “fisherman’s shelters” that China claimed they were.

  • China has also deployed military vessels to enforce a claim on Scarborough Shoal – also in the South China Sea but very close to the Philippines.  Just a few days ago, Chinese ships fired a water cannon at fishermen in Scarborough.

  • China has been intensifying its claim of an exclusive Economic Zone, particularly in conflict with those of Japan and South Korea.  Among the assets at stake are natural gas fields in the region.

  • Then, just this last November, China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which grossly overlaps those of China and South Korea.

  • The ADIZ was intimately associated with China’s claims on the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea (which China calls the Diaoyu Islands) which have been under Japanese jurisdiction since 1895 (with the exception of a period of US control for 27 years after World War II.  Here, China has been regularly deploying naval vessels to challenge Japanese jurisdiction.  In response, Japan has been manifesting a greater spirit of rearmament and determination to resist Chinese expansionism than has been seen in half a century.  If there is a serious potential flashpoint that could erupt into war, this is it.

Downplaying threats: realism or willful blindness? 

When one beholds the totality of Chinese military preparations and expansionist claims, just in the South and East China Seas (let’s not even talk about such Chinese claims as that of the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh), it is by no means hawkish to warn that the Chinese are likely to continue their expansionist behavior in such a way that may even risk armed conflict with one of its neighbors – particularly Japan.  This is only realism.

The problem here is that so few people are aware of what China is doing.  Virtually none of our national leaders are issuing a peep about this.  And so, for the uninitiated, a statement like Captain Fanell’s would seem to be not only undiplomatic but reckless speculation.

In fact, what is reckless is the willful blindness of just about everybody else involved.

Our national strategic leadership is surely aware of Chinese behavior, and to give it some small credit, it did deploy two unarmed B-52s to pass through the Chinese ADIZ in the immediate wake of its announcement.

But what is at stake here is not so much a few rocks, reefs, or even gas fields that may fall within the claimed sea territories.  This happens to be one place in the world where the likelihood of drawing the United States into an unnecessary war is arguably greater than anywhere else on earth.  Should China’s aggressive advances be met with a proportional response from Japan, the possibilities of war would be enormous, and we must not forget that the United States has obligations under the terms of mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Similar silence about Soviet aggression

There is a tendency in American diplomacy to downplay major international security threats in hopes that diplomacy can give the aggressor a face-saving exit from the extreme and dangerous positions it has taken.

But this is wishful thinking and it never works as hoped.

I am reminded here of how, during the Cold War, the U.S. Department of State kept as a classified secret the record of years of Soviet aggressive behavior against the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in East Germany (MLM).  Our MLM, which had been established as part of the Quadripartite Agreement over Berlin, involved the deployment of military intelligence personnel to monitor the other powers’ military presence in the region.  Over the course of several years, the Soviets had perpetrated numerous attacks against members of our MLM, including attempts to use heavy trucks to run their smaller vehicles off the road at high speed.

In 1985, the Soviets opened fire on an MLM vehicle and hit Major Arthur Nicholson, a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer.  The Soviets made him bleed to death over the course of eight hours, while preventing his American colleagues at gunpoint from intervening to save his life.

While the consequence of this attack ended up being more severe than those of earlier attacks, this was simply part of a consistent pattern of Soviet aggression which the State Department completely concealed from public knowledge.

Why should this have been a classified secret, except to conceal it from the American people so that we would not erupt in anger over the treatment of our officer?  The hope, of course, was that by keeping it secret, we would reduce tensions with Moscow in such a way that might ultimately result in peace.

The Soviets never paid any price for their criminal aggression.

Why the silence about China?

The same spirit is at work with Chinese behavior.  Not only is our national leadership effectively mute about China’s strategic purposes and the development of massive military capabilities to realize those purposes, but large swaths of the American business community avert their eyes from these strategic realities in the interest of not rocking the boat of their business relationships with the regime and its favorites in the Chinese “private” sector.

A not-insignificant portion of the academic community of China specialists also censor themselves, for fear of not getting a visa to return to China to do fieldwork.

Finally, it should not go without mention that major organs of the American media, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post receive huge subventions from the Chinese propaganda apparatus to publish and distribute “China Watch” supplements to their newspapers, and all too often, we see only a sprinkling of the facts about the almost daily developments concerning Chinese expansionism in East Asia.

As the Chinese accompany their regional moves with a massive military buildup, the U.S. administration is supervising a major reduction in our defense posture.  U.S. action in this sphere only sends a signal of provocative weakness to Beijing.

If this pattern of Chinese behavior is to be stopped, if war is to be deterred, China must be sent signals of strength and national will.  The Japanese are starting to do this.  The question is whether we will.

The first step toward such a policy is for the President and senior Congressional leaders to tell the truth about the strategic challenges that the U.S. faces from China, and that China’s neighbors are facing in the East Asian region.  With no articulation of truth, our leaders will never build a national consensus to develop the kind of deterrent force and credibility necessary to deter war.

The fact remains that telling the truth is never as destabilizing as covering one’s eyes and censoring oneself about strategic developments inimical to the strategic interests of the United States.

I happen to be part of a Google news group on China led by Captain Fanell, and I am exposed to an avalanche of emails on a daily basis from a myriad of credible sources about these Chinese developments. Captain Fanell knows the facts.  The rest of the world barely sees any of them.  If anything, Captain Fanell’s warnings can be considered responsible and moderate, in light of Chinese behavior.  Rather than being reprimanded for having the courage to tell the truth when our national leaders won’t, he should be rewarded for taking a leadership role when true leadership at the national strategic level is missing.

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