Will Biden Act Fast Enough on Taiwan? Interview With James Fanell, Part 2

Hello, everyone. Welcome to Zooming In China Chat. I’m Simone Gao. 150 Chinese fighter jets entered the southwest airspace recognition zone of Taiwan during the National Holiday of China two weeks ago, the most in the past 40 years. Taiwan’s defense minister said this is the most dangerous time for Taiwan. Would Xi Jinping really decided to invade Taiwan? Are the Taiwanese military and the U.S. military prepared for such a scenario? I had these discussions with James Fanell, former senior intelligence officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence and the chief of intelligence for CTF-70, 7th Fleet and the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Take a listen.
Simone Gao: (00:56)
What will a nuclear war scenario look like? I mean, my understanding is that China doesn’t have as many nuclear weapons as the U.S. but it has enough to cause major, major damage. So, does it matter if the U.S. has more so it can maybe destroy the earth a couple of times more?
James Fanell: (01:16)
Well, China has, uh, stated that they have a “no first-use” policy, which I don’t think anybody in their right mind believes matters a hill of beans, but that’s their stated policy. But interestingly, even today in Global Times, the, uh, Global Times in responding, an article entitled, uh, China’s iron will is stronger than US’ ‘rock solid’ commitment to Taiwan, Global Times editorial. And in the editorial, it says, um, it says the U.S. “has lost its strength to make a rock solid commitment to Taiwan. The Taiwan Straits are an area nearby within the effective strike range of the PLA, which is prepared and strong enough to resist outside military force,” which is what I was mentioning with that counter-intervention strategy. And then they go on and say, “China is a nuclear power with a second-strike capability with intercontinental range ballistic missiles, the DF-41, and the JL-3, which we don’t believe that JL-3 is operational yet, but that’s going to be coming out on their new Type 096 ballistic missile submarine.
James Fanell: (02:22)
We think they’d use the JL-2 on board, uh, the jin-class Type 094, uh, SSBNs that they have six of. So, I guess my point is, to answer your question, even though China has a much smaller nuclear arsenal, they talk a lot in the last month or two about the use of nuclear weapons. And so, I think if China is going to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, it’s entirely appropriate for the United States to make sure that Beijing really understands that if they were to make any kind of move like that, uh, that they would, you know, pay a severe, severe price. And the Party, the Chinese Communist Party, would be vaporized.
Simone Gao: (03:04)
Hmm. So, if the U.S. uses nuclear weapon, the Chinese regime, the CCP, will collapse because, uh, they don’t have the same power? I mean, even at the second strike or first strike, and then America strikes back, they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t be able to, uh, you know, counter that?
James Fanell: (03:24)
We would, uh, our, our targeting procedures and policies would ensure that the CCP leadership would never be able to give another order.
Simone Gao: (03:33)
Got it. Got it. So, um, let’s talk about President Biden. I mean, how will President Biden react if China invades Taiwan? Specifically, will he make decisive retaliation orders right away, or do you think he will be indecisive? Uh, and the reason I ask this question is because, uh, the Afghanistan debacle really gave our allies impression that America would not act responsibly. In, uh, in Afghanistan, our military moved too slowly and didn’t even get the right intelligence. So, if the same things happen in the Taiwan Strait, America will lose the initial window to push back the PLA. Once Taiwan is occupied, the game is over. So, many people think Xi Jinping is betting on such reactions from the Biden administration and that’s why they’re so aggressive right now. What do you think?
James Fanell: (04:33)
I share these concerns. Uh, the world, as you said, watched what happened in Afghanistan, uh, and the performance of our Secretary of Defense and, uh, Chairman of Joint Chiefs and the national security apparatus, the National Security Council. And it’s always been like this regardless. Let me rephrase that. Uh, the concern about a delayed reaction has always been a concern that I’ve had because of the cumbersome nature of the National Security Council apparatus is so large that it’s, uh, it takes time. It’s not nimble, it’s not agile. Which is one of the things that I think the previous administration was trying to correct. Uh, so that’s an inherent weakness in our system. Plus, we are not an aggressive nation and so we typically end up taking the first strike. Uh, so your question is quite valid. Uh, what would happen if we were to take the first strike and what could we do?
James Fanell: (05:28)
And then what would this administration do? And there’s a lot of debate going on right now in the United States, um, and you know, in the first so far nine, ten months of this administration, people have tried to give the administration the benefit of the doubt in terms of their position on, on China. And there’s been a lot of what you could say are, are positive signs. I mean, just this last week, uh, the Defense Department spokesman talked about, you know, the PRC has stepped up its efforts to intimidate and pressure Taiwan and other allies and partners in the vicinity of, of Taiwan. We believe this is destabilizing and only increases the risk of miscalculation. Uh, our support for and defense of the relationship with Taiwan, Taiwan remains aligned with the current threat posed by the PRC. And we urge Beijing to honor its commitment to peaceful reunification, peaceful resolution, not reunification, of cross-strait differences as delineated in the three communiques.
James Fanell: (06:27)
So, I mean, you’re hearing from the Defense Department, the State Department, from the National Security Advisor, a modicum of support for Taiwan. My concern is it’s clearly not as strong as it needs to be given the vociferousness of the PRC statements, as I just read you in Global Times, and the actions of the PLA. And so, uh, the United States, as I mentioned, did a big exercise, uh, this last week. And they had four, essentially four big carriers out there operating, uh, east of the Okinawa. That’s good. Those are good signals. We just had a French intelligence ship go through the Taiwan Strait. Germany has sent a frigate out, uh, a destroyer out, this last year, in the last few months. We’ve had, uh, you know, the, the, the new announced AUKUS deal between, uh, Australia, Great Britain (U.K.), and the United States regarding submarine technology and other capabilities like artificial intelligence and cyber activities, enhancing those for Australia to help them be, uh, more capable in the defense of Taiwan and allow the United States to have a closer operating area, uh, to the theater of operations.
James Fanell: (07:40)
These are all good things. Uh, but as you said, what occurred in Afghanistan has really, uh, had a deleterious effect on the region and the people that I talked to in the region, like you and others, that are very, very worried that, uh, the administration may be delayed in taking an action or, even worse, not take any action at all. And so that’s something that a show like this is very important for, because it raises the issue and it raises the issue to this administration and allows people to ask them, what are you going to do? Are you prepared? And I would just counter, uh, or I would just add, there’s a growing, uh, chorus of people inside Washington that are calling for an end of this policy of strategic ambiguity regarding America’s position for defending Taiwan. And now people are calling for strategic clarity because China has violated the spirit of the three communiques, has clearly, uh, altered the balance of power and the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, uh, over the last two decades or more.
James Fanell: (08:49)
And so there is no, in a sense, there is no reason that the United States should have to adhere to an outdated policy that was signed, signed–or not signed, but agreed to–with China that they haven’t kept. So, they violated the spirit of, uh, you know, peaceful reunification by their own actions and words and deeds. And so, I think it’s time for the United States to, to have strategic, uh, clarity that we will defend Taiwan. That is part of the deterrence package. And then when that happens, we can then move on to other things like how do we get ships and aircraft to support Taiwan immediately? And how can we have port calls and aircraft land, which China has said is a red line in 2005 with their anti-secession law? Uh, but I’m not sure as, uh, your defense minister said, I’m not sure that China is quite ready just yet to actually do it, even though they may think they have the capability in some sense, there may still be some calculations that they want to achieve more growth in certain areas and more training evolutions. And if we can take them off their script, uh, that then creates doubt in their mind. And that then creates a defense for the people of Taiwan.
Simone Gao: (10:05)
Right. Two weeks ago, when 150 Chinese fighter jets entered Taiwan’s southwest airspace recognition zone, President Biden said he had recently had a meeting with Xi Jinping and, uh, they agreed on this Taiwan agreement, which we’re not sure what he referred to exactly. But anyway, he said, they agreed on the Taiwan agreement. And, uh, he thought Xi Jinping shouldn’t do anything outside of that agreement. On one hand, he gave people some assurance that Xi Jinping would not likely act on Taiwan, but on the other hand, it got me concerned because it seemed that Biden would totally not be prepared if Xi Jinping really moved on Taiwan, because Biden thought that was out of the question. So, if China really invades Taiwan and Taiwan said they can last for two weeks, do you think Biden will be able to move within the two weeks?
James Fanell: (11:06)
I think a couple of things. One, you know, the United States military, the Indo-Pacific command, is operating in the region like I did when I was stationed out there with the, you know, on board the Kitty Hawk and then with the Blue Ridge with the 7th Fleet, we’re constantly operating out there. We have a lot of forces that are sailing and steaming and air forces and, uh, you know, working with Taiwan, uh, working with our allies in Japan, in South Korea, in Australia, in the Philippines. So we’re in the region, we’re operating in the region. And if China were to launch this invasion and, according to the scenario that I laid out to you earlier, it’s entirely possible that they’re going to strike American forces and that they won’t be able to not strike American forces, especially if we’re in the region really close. And I would tell you that if an American force were to be killed, a ship were to be sunk, an aircraft to be shot down, the pressure on this president to do something, uh, immediately would be incredible.
James Fanell: (12:09)
And I don’t, I, I do not see him not taking, uh, reaction to that. I just don’t see that even, even with what happened in Afghanistan, I think now that would, uh, what happened in Afghanistan would cause the tightening of the timelines in terms of decision-making. In the Indo-Pacific command, uh, they’re, they’re, I would say they’re primed to be able to understand and know those events in real time. So, in a matter of minutes, if something like that were to happen, that information would be back in Washington. So, I don’t see that as really, uh, I think that’s, uh, unfortunate for the U.S. military, in some sense we would be kind of like the canary in the coal mine, but on the other hand, it’s, I think it’s an assurance to the people in Taiwan that it may, uh, bring the United States in, uh, in some sense. The other hand, though, if the United States isn’t attacked and our forces are not struck, uh, then, then you have a situation where you may have some debate going on back in Washington, like we saw with the Scarborough Shoal event in 2012 in the Philippines, which was largely the same crew that’s in the Biden administration today. They went through April to June, uh, before they made, uh, any kind of substantive decision in terms of how to deal with China seizure of Scarborough Shoal.
James Fanell: (13:31)
And unfortunately, in that case, at the end of the process, China took sovereign control over Scarborough Shoal, which was in the Philippines exclusive economic zone. So, uh, I’m not, I’m not giving a great answer in terms of, uh, encouragement to the folks in Taiwan, which again is why it’s important for a show like this to raise these issues, ask these questions and to get people in Washington to address them. And there is a contingent of people that are asking these questions. So, I don’t want to characterize it as it’s a hostile environment, but we have to make it clear that these kinds of decisions need to be prepared ahead of time and made ready, uh, so that we don’t allow, uh, China to get one soldier on, on the island, the PRC to get one PLA soldier on the island. Uh, as you said, it will be impossible then to get them off, in some sense. If one soldier, yes. But the idea is if that were to grow into an invasion force, then it becomes a different story.
Simone Gao: (14:32)
Right. You just talked about two months. That’s scary, two months. If this takes two months, everything is over, right? Taiwan can hold two weeks.
James Fanell: (14:43)
This is one of the issues is, and in my time and my dealings and conversations with the Taiwan ministry of defense over the years, and even currently, uh, we continue to recommend to our friends in the Ministry of Defense, you have to have more, you have to have the capability to last longer than two weeks. You have to do that. You have to invest in that. So, uh, when I talked to comrades, not comrades, but friends in Taiwan, I talked to them and what I get back is, you know, things that are happening in Taiwan in relationship to, like you mentioned, the 150 aircraft in a three-day period, that had, uh, made incursions into the Taiwan air defense identification zone, most, I think most Taiwan young people aren’t really aware of that, or maybe they’re aware but they don’t understand the implication, and it has no kind of bearing on their daily lives.
James Fanell: (15:38)
And I think, you know, if you go to Israel, uh, and you talk to people in Israel, they’re very much aware of when Hezbollah and other forces are attacking them and what it means to their daily life. And they have bomb shelters and they have gas masks and they have, uh, they’re all in the military or some kind of service, national service, to help defend their nation. Uh, I see similar kinds of attitudes in South Korea, where as the generations get younger and the older generation that fought the Korean War is getting older and dying off, there’s less and less, uh, understanding of the real risk that North Korea provides to South Korea. And so I say, amongst those three areas of Israel, South Korea/North Korea, and then Taiwan and the PRC, I think of all three, the Taiwan citizenry is, seems to be the less concerned about the threat from the PRC.
James Fanell: (16:34)
And that worries me, and that needs to be, uh, changed as well. And I understand that there’s been concerns about if you alarm the populace in Taiwan, that then they’ll provoke China to take an action. Uh, but I think you’re well past that point now. And I think it’s time for the people of Taiwan to wake up and understand that they need to invest, uh, in the defense of their, uh, their nation. And that means that young people are going to have to get involved with, uh, national guard service and knowing how to fire a weapon, knowing how to defend themselves, knowing how to fire a, you know, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, things of that nature. Having a civil defense network so that people know who’s in their, their neighborhood, where do they go for a bomb shelter? Where do they go to get their weapons?
James Fanell: (17:23)
Where do they go to see if there’s a fifth column in Taiwan, and how do they defend against that? I saw a picture this last week, uh, a friend of mine in Taiwan sent me a picture of some, some city, I won’t give the name, and it was a neighborhood. And in the neighborhood, there was a PRC flag flying from a house, uh, in Taiwan. Now it’s, uh, you guys are a democracy just like America, and, and it’s free to do that, but who is that person? What are they doing and why are they flying a PRC flag in Taiwan? And what would they do in the event of an invasion? You have to consider the fifth column.
Simone Gao: (17:58)
Yeah, exactly. I get the same message from my Taiwanese friend as well. The Taiwanese media are not covering the Chinese fighter jets entering the, you know, the airspace recognition zone of Taiwan. They, they are oblivious about the possibility of a China invasion. They were talking about Taiwan gets a lot of international support. Now, uh, U.K. Is supporting us. Australia is supporting us. And, uh, uh, you know, the, uh, athletes support us by taking off their nationalities. You know, that event where China said a Taiwanese athlete cannot say, uh, his nationality and bunch other, uh, athletes from other countries said, you know, you take our nationality off the list as well. So, Taiwanese media reports a lot of those stories gave Taiwan the sense that the international community is for us, China is not going to invade us. And that’s, that’s kind of scary, right? You can’t think of that. There is a possibility that Xi Jinping will act.
James Fanell: (19:07)
Correct. I mean, feel good stories about social activism are nice, but they have nothing to do with real, uh, warfare. And once the Chinese start to come, uh, you know, it’s quite likely that the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and strike group will be back in British waters and the Germans and the French and others. So, uh, I mean this idea that people are going to be there all the time to protect Taiwan, that’s just a false notion. You have to be able to defend yourself. And so you’re going to have to spend money to do that, which means it’s going to affect your economy. And it’s going to mean that people are going to have maybe less social services from the government. Uh, but they’ll have the ability to have a confidence that they can go to sleep at night, knowing that if the balloon goes up, that they’ll have a chance to survive. Uh, food. Uh, how much food do you have in reserve? How much propane? Most people in Taiwan cook their rice with propane heaters or propane gas. Uh, last I checked, you didn’t have much more than a week or so of that. Uh, is that good enough? Not in a conflict if you want to eat and survive and you’re having missiles come down, uh, from the PRC, you better have a month or two months or three months worth of propane.
Simone Gao: (20:23)
Right. Right. Oh my goodness. You just talked about U.K. aircraft carrier will go back to U.K. water. I was going to ask you, you know, now Australia and Japan have both expressed, you know, interest or they express, they are standing with America to defend Taiwan. So, if America is indecisive, do you think Australia and Japan will take the initiative to confront the PLA once China attacks?
James Fanell: (20:52)
I think right now, a couple of things, too. You’re having both nations have kind of had a wake up call over the last year or so, and like India, uh, but for specifically Japan and Australia, I think, uh, internally in their nations, there’s been an awakening by the citizenry, uh, that they really understand that China is a threat. I mean, it’s really palpable down in Australia, lots and lots of coverage of what China is doing. And it’s because China’s going after uh, uh, Australia and targeting them economically. And then they’ve actually said that, uh, now that they’ve done this AUKUS deal, that that’s a violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and therefore Australia’s entered itself as a target, uh, of Chinese, uh, nuclear missile strikes. Uh, and so, uh, a Chinese academic in America, Victor Gao, two weeks ago said, you know, because of this deal, uh, Australia now has to worry about being on a target list from the Chinese nuclear forces.
James Fanell: (21:59)
Wow. That’s, that got a lot of attention in Australia. So they’re, they’re really concerned about this, and I think they’d be willing to help Taiwan. Uh, the problem is that Australia’s quite a ways away and they have a very small military force. Japan, uh, the people of Japan are recognizing what’s going on, and you’ve seen over the last, uh, summer here with the outgoing Suga, uh, administration, you had the, the Vice Prime Minister, Taro Aso, you had the Defense Minister, uh, uh, Kishi, and the Vice Defense Minister, uh, Nakayama, all three coming out saying that, uh, the defense of Taiwan was in Japan’s national interest. Uh, and there’s an expectation that the new Prime Minister, uh, Kishida, in the elections that’ll occur on 31 October, uh, that if he stays in power, that he’s going to have a very strong stance to confront–or not confront, but to defend against–China and to help defend Taiwan against China, because the Japanese understand that if Taiwan were to fall and become a PLA, uh, you know, base, if you will, that this would put, uh, Japan at great risk, uh, present a mortal threat to Japan.
James Fanell: (23:12)
And so Japan understands this as well. And so you can expect that Japan would likely be involved, uh, but it will be hard for them because, uh, they, they, they don’t have the same size military, uh, as the Chinese. And, uh, they probably are looking for a leadership from the United States in some areas. And so there’ll be some questions there. And so this is why it’s really, really important that the United States stand and lead as they have in Asia for the last, you know, 80 years since the end of World War II. It’s incumbent upon this administration, regardless of their political party, that they have to stand up and make it unambiguously clear to Beijing that to do such a thing would be the end of the PRC and the end of the Chinese Communist Party.
Simone Gao: (24:04)
Yeah, that’s right. Thank you, James. This is such a good discussion. Do you have anything else to add?
James Fanell: (24:12)
No. I, I, again, I’m happy to have this conversation with you and your audience. Uh, it’s really, really important that people take this seriously. It’s not warmongering. Nobody wants to have a war. That’s the last thing we want. We want to deter war, and the way we deter that is to show strength to the PRC, because that’s the one thing that they will respect and, and think about.
Simone Gao: (24:36)
Yep. That’s right. Thank you, James.
James Fanell: (24:40)
All right. Thank you. All the best.
Simone Gao: (24:44)
That’s it for today. Thanks for watching Zooming In China Chat. Please like, share, subscribe and donate to this program if you like my content. Our website is zoomingin.tv. I’m Simone Gao, and I’ll see you next time.

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