What Has Beijing Learned from War on Ukraine, an Interview with James Fanell | Zooming In

Simone Gao: When the war on Ukraine is turning more and more frustrating for Russia, both Beijing and Taipei are watching closely.

If you were a senior Chinese general at this point, would you suggest Xi Jinping, uh, take or not to take Taiwan by force because of, you know, how the war has turned out in Ukraine?

James Fanell: If I was a PLA general, I would be, you know, I would be telling, uh, you know, general secretary Z. Here’s what we know about what has occurred in the Ukraine. Here’s where the Russians made mistakes. Here’s how we have, uh, overcome those mistakes.

Simone Gao: But are the Taiwanese as alert as they should be?

James Fanell: From what I’ve read is that the, you know, the crash of a, an ROC air force training aircraft that killed unfortunately, uh, Taiwan air force pilot, That seemed to have garnered more attention and criticism from the press in Taiwan than the fact that the PRC had sent 30 aircraft into their air defense identification zone.

Simone Gao: The Russian army’s performance has been less impressive than many military experts had expected. Is China’s military on the same caliber?

Seeing how the Ukraine war has been unfolding, is China less likely to take Taiwan by force?I had this conversation with James Fanell, former director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

I am Simone Gao and you are watching Zooming In.

Simone Gao: Then how would you compare Russia’s military power to that of China after seeing what happened in Ukraine?

James Fanell: Well, I mean, this is a, again, an assessment based on my, my own observations of the Chinese military over the years, and that obviously has to be couched in terms of, we don’t know, because we haven’t seen them in action. Like we’re seeing the Russians right now. Uh, but from what I see with the, the amount of training that the Chinese have, the amount of arms and capabilities that they have, their focus on joint integration, uh, it seems to me that, uh, that they have a capability that I think is greater than the Russians in terms of, of mass. Uh, Russian has a lot of forces Russia, amassed, you know, over a hundred thousand ground troops on the Ukrainian border. Uh, but I think that that when China decides to take, uh, Taiwan, they’re gonna be able Tomas a million or 2 million to be able to come across the Taiwan Strait.

Uh, and I think that’s something that people don’t really, uh, comprehend, uh, especially when you’re talking about the concept of People’s War, where the totality of the Chinese, uh, society would be brought to bear against, uh, Taiwan. Uh, but there’s, and there’s another difference. Obviously, the, the terrain, you know, it’s a land war in Russia and Ukraine, uh, going across, uh, the Taiwan, Strait’s a different, uh, endeavor. That’s why the Chinese Navy is much greater than the Russian Navy, uh, in terms of, uh, this kind of, uh, operation. And then you add in the strategic rocket force of the PLA uh, the strategic support force. I think there’s a lot there that the Chinese have capability-wise. And I think what they’ve done is they’vely used this, uh, three months of conflict as a, as a, as a schoolhouse, the Chinese military leaders, PLA leaders, central military commission are probably studying intimately studying what the Russians are doing.

Uh, they obviously have connections with the Russians. We saw the Russians and the Chinese flying together. They’re bombers in formation with fighter escorts in the sea of Japan this last week. Uh, that doesn’t happen if you don’t have close military contact. And so if the Russians and the Chinese are operating together in the sea of Japan, you can, you can very well be sure that China’s also requesting and getting intelligence and, and, and, um, feedback from the Russians on what’s working, or what’s not working. How are the, uh, Western, uh, allies, uh, supporting the Ukraine and what is Ukraine doing? So I’m sure that Russia’s are China is studying all these details and, and getting smarter and updating their war plans and their contingency plans that they have for Taiwan.

Simone Gao: After seeing what happened in Ukraine, some analysts say it almost looks like Russia is not fighting a war of the 21st century but a war in the late 19th and 20th century. Their different military branches are not well-integrated, they don’t use intelligence well, they fire heavy artillery and move their troops in big blocs. What’s your opinion on that? Is China the same way?

James Fanell: Right. That’s a good question. I mean, there’s basically this idea of, uh, attrition warfare, slow, uh, tank battles and, and, and ground forces supported by heavy fires of artillery, you know, mass bombardments on artillery at certain locations, and just kind of slugging it out like they did in World War II, in Stalingrad or something. And so I think that’s a fair assessment that, from what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think that’s too much off the mark. So then the next question that you raised and I’ve seen the discussions is whether or not that the Chinese military is wedded to the same kind of doctrine in the way they fight. And I think up until the last, uh, 20 years and maybe, uh, 10 years Chinese military doctrine, especially for the PLA army is very much probably influenced by old Soviet, uh, military doctrine that we’re seeing played out in the Ukraine.

But I do think because the Soviet Navy is now the Russian Navy and their talk, their doctrines didn’t really, I don’t think influenced the Chinese Navy and their development and the Chinese air force and the Chinese strategic rocket force, uh, in the same fashion. And so I think what we have with the PLA today is a much more modern force, not just in the weapons that they have, but in the way that they look at fighting a war. I mean, I gave a speech, um, eight years ago where we were quoting Chinese generals talking about conducting a short, sharp war. So they’re aware of this. We know that the Chinese leaders, military leaders have gone to school on Desert Storm from 19 90, 19 91. And the, uh, shock and awe campaign that the us military inflicted on Saddam Hussein, and his military. So we know that the Chinese, uh, have studied these things have tried to mimic the, and the development of their own military to be able to do these kinds of short, sharp war, uh, lightning strikes.

So I, I think that Chinese have a different doctrinal perspective when it comes to this. Now we know in 1950, when they fought in the Korean war, they fought much like the Russians are fighting today in the Ukraine, but again, that was 72 years ago or, or, or so, and I think the Chinese in the last 20 years have really adapted and altered their doctrine and have gotten much more in tune with the United States’ military, uh, way of fighting, uh, in this 21st century. And so I would expect that Chinese would operate that way.

Simone Gao: You are the one who has been sounding the alarm of how the PLA military power is advancing and in some areas surpassed the U.S.. How is the situation right now? Do you think America has the ability to protect Taiwan?

James Fanell: I’m very, very concerned about our ability, the United States’s ability, to protect Taiwan, defend Taiwan from an invasion from China. Uh, as you, as you noted, I’ve have been warning about this and, uh, what I see today, and I’m seeing more and more, uh, like-minded security officials, people that hadn’t said anything in the past few years are now starting to sound the alarm that were really in a serious situation, especially when our, our budgets that are being submitted, uh, are, are clearly not the kind of budgets that we would expect to see in the face of such a, a growing threat from the PRC and the PLA. So I worry that the, the relatively static size of the US Seventh Fleet and the Fifth Air Force and other air force, our, our, our, our Marine three Third Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, those permanently deployed kind of are former forward deployed permanent forces that we have out in, in the Western Pacific, that, that, that size and the capabilities are generally the same over the last 30 years.

Now, there’s been improvements in, in the different types of, uh, equipment that they have. And there’s been 2,500 Marines, uh, that are rotationed out of Darwin in Australia. But other than that, there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in the presence and size of the US Western Pacific military forces while China has dramatically changed and grown and altered the military balance of power in the region. China’s Navy is now the largest Navy in the world. Ours is, uh, around 297 ships, but we have to split those ships essentially between our east and west coast. So they’re not all focused and on station in the Western Pacific. So China’s advantage, even though they’re the largest Navy is even greater than just saying, they’re the largest Navy by a few, few ships. They’re now actually much larger because they’re concentrated. They’re in China, inside the first and second island chain while ours are on our west and east coast and have thousands and thousands of miles, uh, to sail before they could actually get into the combat area to help defend Taiwan.

Um, so I’m really worried that we’re, we’re not prepared. I think the people that are in the military, uh, the people that are at sea today are, are, are good Americans, and they’re, they want to do the right thing. They’re planning and practicing to do the right things to defend Taiwan. Uh, but they don’t have the resources there there’s been cuts to, uh, you know, training and maintenance funds over the years, uh, that make them less able to, you know, be as sharp as they should be. Maybe as when I was in active duty, we’re seeing more and more pictures of US Navy warships that are rusted out and not prepared, not materially ready as they could be or should be. And so I worry about all these things, and I’m very concerned that our Congress doesn’t seem to be, uh, alarmed. They should be at a, you know, it’s like a, if a house is on fire, they call the fire department and there’s a four, four alarm fire. That’s the, the highest number of alarms. You can have to get the whole fire department out to put out the big fire. And we should be at a four alarm fire status right now inside the United States Department of Defense and our Congress, as it comes to realizing that China is on the brink of doing something like we’re seeing, being done in the Ukraine.

Simone Gao: So that was what I was going to ask you. After seeing what has been happening in Ukraine, do you think Washington will be more candid or less candid in boosting the U.S. military? Do they see Russia as not as competent as they thought and so would it be similar for China or do they see China doing something similar so the threat to Taiwan is real and the U.S. had better be prepared?

James Fanell: There’s a mixed message coming out of this White House. And it’s confused people from the left, from the right side of the aisle. Uh, and then we have to look at things like arm sales, and there’s a great concern that arm sales from the United States to Taiwan, there’s been a, either a cancellation or delay of a number of, uh, weapons here in the last few months. And that’s a that’s alarming given the one thing that we we know from the experience in the Ukraine is that if we had armed up, uh, the Ukraine before the Russian invasion, it may have altered Putin’s desire to, to risk a war in Ukraine.

I know many, many people in Washington, DC, the experts, the so-called experts say, if you do that, you will be provoking China to attack. And my answer to them is, uh, that’s what you assess. However, what we know is that Chinese intend to attack Taiwan, and if we’re not going to do anything to deter them, so what’s the difference. If they’re going to come after I send arms into Taiwan, at least we have a fighting chance; if I don’t do anything, then those people in Taiwan have no chance.

And so I would suggest that we start providing them those, uh, materials, uh, those weapons as soon as possible. And that we would also establish a combined command structure in Taiwan that we composed of Taiwan military, US military, uh, Japanese military, and other members of the quad, or whoever else wants to join that, uh, to conduct, uh, training and, and, and not just training, but to have a command and control structure that would allow us to be effective. Uh, when the invasion were to occur, if it were to occur. We have such structure on the Korean peninsula today, it’s called combined forces command. It combines US and mili and Korean military together, and they sit shoulder to shoulder with each other in command centers and in the field and in the fleet. And, uh, we should be doing something very much similar, uh, towards, uh, Taiwan right now.

Simone Gao: This question has always perplexed our non-military people. Does the DOD have an existing operational plan regarding the Taiwan strait under various circumstances? If so, does the ambiguity coming out of the White House matter? What role do the President and congress play in a potential conflict over the Taiwan strait?

James Fanell: Well, you, you, it’s always natural to assume that militaries plan. I mean, each and, and plan for contingencies. Um, we have a whole, if you could look at our joint doctrine, we have operational plans O plans, and we have contingency plans, con plans. That’s part of our doctrine. You can read about it, it’s in the open, open press. Uh, I can’t talk about specific plans that the INDOPACOM has. I can just say that I was almost 30 years in the Indo-Pacific command, or then called PACOM, Pacific command. And I can say that, you know, at every level that I was at, we had a, what we call the, in the, the military high, uh, nomenclature. We have the planning shop, the 5, the J5 at the joint level, the N5 at the Navy level. And so there’s planners, there’s people on, on the staffs of these, uh, military commands inside the US military that are planners and our counterparts and other militaries are planners as well.

And so if you’re assigned, uh, to the Indo-Pacific, it’s probably a good chance that you’re planning for something that, that has to do with an invasion of Taiwan. That’s not a, that’s not a super, that’s not a secret, but your question is, well, because we have a plan, therefore we don’t have to worry so much about what Biden or the Congress say. And I, I disagree with that. I think, as I said before, the entirety of lead leading a nation into combat in terms of making decisions about what a nation will do that has to be led by the President of the United States. We’ve seen it play out in, in, in, in Afghanistan in terms of how, uh, the, the, uh, you know, the, the, uh, evacuation of Kabul and the decision making about why to lead Bhagram Air Base. These were all decision parameters, excuse me, that were set by the President of the United States.

We’ve seen it here in the Ukraine president of the United States has had the, kind of the, the most influential say, even to the partners in NATO about whether or not we would allow, uh, you know, combat aircraft and other kinds of weapons to be given to the Ukraine. And it will be exactly the same thing in a Taiwan scenario. The President of the United States will have this influence over how, uh, a fight would be, uh, engaged whether or not we would be full in or where we would try to hedge. And the Congress has a role, both constitutionally and through, you know, its ability to, I mean, in terms of authorizations of war and that nature, but also through what they authorize in terms of funding for the, the, the build up of military forces and readiness. And so both institutions have a responsibility, uh, to, uh, they have a huge responsibility in this, and it’s not just left up to the commander of INDOPACOM and his planning staff and his fielded forces to just go about and do the business of defending Taiwan. It’ll take much more than that.

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