Biden Administration’s Commitment to Be Tested in South China Sea, Taiwan, Myanmar


We spoke with a retired captain of the U.S. Navy about his outlook on the Biden administration’s Asia policy.


Retired Captain of the U.S. Navy

Captain James E. Fanell

Fanell graduated from San Diego State University, received his M.A. from the University of Hawaii and was a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is currently a Government Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in Switzerland where he lives with his wife. His last assignment in the U.S. Navy was as the Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet where he warned of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.

(Interviewer: Hanako Cho, Mayuko Kataoka)


――Do the top officials under President Biden have any insight into Asia? Secretary of State Blinken’s stance seems to be, “Work with China where possible,” such as on climate change. What is your view on this?

Captain Fanell: President Biden and many other of his national security appointees have an established track record for dealing with, and unfortunately, appeasing the PRC. For instance, we must remember that during the Obama administration, the “point man” for China was Joe Biden. Likewise, Kurt Campbell, the newly appointed Indo-Pacific coordinator, was the Obama administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs who oversaw the Scarborough Shoal Incident of 2012. During that event, Mr. Campbell essentially did nothing to stop the PRC’s territorial acquisition of the shoal from the Republic of the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally. This was the U.S.’s worst foreign policy disaster in Asia since the fall of Vietnam in 1975.

There are other appointees in the new Biden administration who have espoused a belief in a policy of “engagement” with the PRC, believing that we can improve the peace and stability of the region if we simply conduct more meetings and have more dialogue. I call it the Kissinger School of Engagement, an unwritten policy of engagement with the PRC. Secretary Pompeo called it blind engagement, I’ve often referred to it as unconstrained and unaccountable engagement.

After 40-plus years, it is now clear that this policy was an utter failure. But no one ever stopped and asked, “Is it working?” It’s like you have a bad tooth and you go to the dentist. The dentist works on your tooth and he says it’s fixed, but you go home, and you still can’t eat. Would someone say that this is a success? We have been doing this for 40 years with the Kissinger School of Engagement.

As such, it is very worrisome to see adherents of this failed policy now back in positions of power within the U.S. government.


An Asset That the Trump Administration Left Behind

――Before leaving the White House, former President Trump released a classified document on the Indo-Pacific strategic framework that was compiled in February 2018. Why do you think it was released?

Captain Fanell: As previously noted, there was great concern the Biden administration will return to a policy of engagement with the PRC, one that characterized the Obama administration. As such, the declassification and release of the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” was an important event because it expanded the discussion of the engagement policy with the American people and the rest of the world.

The Trump administration came in, and they said, “What are we getting for all this engagement?” They realized that in fact, America, and our allies, were losing. At the outset of the Trump administration, he tried to work on a deal with the PRC, but Xi wouldn’t deal with him. That’s when the tariffs on PRC became implemented.

The Trump administration recognized that you cannot negotiate with a regime whose very essence stands against freedom and liberty. They demonstrated their dedication to America’s national security in Asia by changing our national policy towards the PRC and the CCP. Americans and the world, years from now will remember the Trump Administration as having greatly contributed to the free world’s national security by awakening the American people to the very real, and dangerous, ideological differences between Chinese communism and freedom and liberty.

The “Strategic Framework” noted that China’s Ministry of State Security and military intelligence agency have been engaged in both large-scale human-spying operations and cyber- and economic espionage. It also called for implementing a defense strategy that would deny the PRC air and sea dominance inside the First Island Chain, the string of islands stretching from Japan through Taiwan and the South China Sea. This is a key sentence for the people of Japan and their national security interests given that the PLA has been and seeks to break out from the First Island Chain and be able to use this new operating space in attacks against not only Taiwan, the U.S. military, but eventually even against Japan.

The PRC’s military strategy in this regard has been called “Counter Intervention”, called Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) by the U.S. and Japan is designed so that the PLA could be able to attack U.S. and allied (to include Japanese) forces outside the First Island Chain. The purpose of the A2/AD strategy is to drive out Japan and the U.S. from the western region of the First Island Chain and create a safe haven for the PLA to carry out its military operations against Taiwan.

One of the primary methods used to attack U.S. and allied forces farther away from the Chinese mainland is the PLA’s Strategic Rocket Force (SRF). One of the primary weapons of PLA SRF has been the Dong Feng 21D, a medium range ballistic missile.

The PLA SRF would launch a number of missiles against U.S. and Japanese forces and thus prevent them from assisting Taiwan’s defense.

Since around 2007 when U.S. intelligence community first began to understand the capabilities of the DF-21D, there has been a growing sense within the U.S. Department of Defense that American aircraft carriers and other surface combatants could not operate safely within the First Island Chain. From about 2007 to 2017 there had been a great debate within the Pentagon and PACOM/PACFLT about the dangers from the PRC’s “counter intervention” (referred to as Anti-Access and Aerial Denial by the U.S. and Japan) strategy and the threat of the DF-21D, and now the DF-26 ballistic missiles to U.S. and Japanese big-deck naval combatants. So, when the Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific was released it specifically noted the direction from President Trump for U.S. military forces to operate within the First Island Chain. This was a big revelation.

By focusing on fighting and winning within the First Island Chain, the U.S. and Japan can keep the pressure on the PLA as soon as they leave their ports and airfields. Further, if the U.S. or Japan were to decide it was too hard to defend the inner part of the First Island Chain, it would allow the PRC to have the ability to also take the rest of the Nansei Shoto and thus threaten all of Japan’s security, to include American forces station at these bases.

The Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific demonstrated the Trump administration was doing more than just issuing rhetorical statements like the Obama administration’s “Rebalance to the Pacific” bumper sticker slogans.

The release of the “Strategic Framework” places a burden of proof on the Biden administration, to demonstrate through their actions that they are not going to kowtow to Beijing.

If the U.S. and Japan give up on defending the First Island Chain, the PRC can more easily take the Nansei Shoto. Japan’s national security and U.S. military bases including Okinawa will be in danger.

It also provides an opportunity for Tokyo to hold the Biden administration accountable. The Suga administration will know early on if the Biden administration is holding a tough line with Beijing or is backing off.

The number one criticism of the Trump administration in foreign policy was that “[Trump] only cares about America first,” but that wasn’t the case. Yet, the declassification of the Strategic Framework policy paper revealed the Trump administration was working behind the scenes, which other governments in Asia, especially Japan.


After Defense Budget Cut, Will We Say Goodbye to Aircraft Carriers?

――There will be cuts in the U.S. defense budget by the Biden administration. What do you think will happen to the U.S. defense system?,

Captain Fanell: Even in the Trump administration, when the president was very vocal about building our Navy, there were strong forces in America against that policy and they continue today.

Now, in a Biden administration, you already have calls from people inside the Democratic Party saying that money should be taken from the Defense Department to spend on anything else but the military. Even Biden’s first budget submission is weak with just a meager 2% increase to the Defense Department.

As such, there will be a push for unmanned maritime vehicles, below, on and above the surface of the water.

You can also expect there will be a push to get rid of aircraft carriers. There’s a discussion going on in the Pentagon and in Washington DC that asserts the aircraft carriers’ days are over.

That said, there is some new information regarding new lasers and energy weapons being developed to defeat the DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles. If this technology actually works, it may revive the life of the aircraft carrier.

Lloyd Austin, the new secretary of defense, formed a China task force inside the Pentagon a few weeks ago, and they put Mr. Ely Ratner in charge. The task force has to come up with a report, in the next several months, on practical solutions for dealing with the threat of China. I remain concerned the Biden administration will shift course on increasing military-to-military enagement with the PLA. An early indicator of such a shift would be if the PLA Navy was reinvited to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, RIMPAC.

Given that the PRC is threatening its neighbors in the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, it seems likely that Beijing will continue on this path of aggression unless the U.S. shows a firm resolve that America and the rest of the world will not accept this bad behavior from Beijing.

At the end of February, the Biden administration struck targets in Syria. The administration justified their action by saying, “We needed to send a signal.” If it’s so important to send a signal to Syria, what about sending a signal to the Chinese Communist Party? I’m worried about talk, and no action.


Establish Military Presence Around Myanmar

――Myanmar may become a touchstone for the Biden administration, but so far, the only countermeasure by the U.S. seems to be sanctions.

Captain Fanell: Regarding Myanmar, the PRC is testing the Biden administration, and I do not believe sanctions are enough.

There are a host of other “whole of government” actions that could be taken to respond to Beijing’s actions in Asia, not just Myanmar.

For instance, there are more economic sanctions that could be enacted against the PRC. The Biden administration could conduct a more aggressive diplomatic effort with like-minded nations in the region to pressure Beijing internationally. Additionally, the U.S. could reach out to the Quad to move forces to the region, establish the Navy and Air Force’s presences, and ensure Beijing understands the world will not sit by and allow Beijing to take over Myanmar.

My worry, based on the Obama administration’s failures to sustain close relations with two treaty allies of Thailand and the Philippines, is that the same officials could do the same with Myanmar.


Japan Must Change its Mindset

――Japan has strict requirements for exercising the right of collective self-defense, which is very different from NATO countries. Do you think the Quad can function as an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?

Captain Fanell: My feeling is that the Quad does not have to become a NATO for Asia or the Indo-Pacific. The idea that NATO is somehow going to be replicated by these four nations is old thinking in my mind. We have to come up with a new construct, a new way of thinking that allows each of these four countries to participate to the maximum extent inside the norms of each of their countries.

But I will also say, it also means that Japan will have to do a little bit of changing. They cannot stay with this mindset of, “We can only do self-defense, and we cannot get involved with other nations.” If Japan continues with that mindset, they will be in serious trouble.

――We are concerned with China’s ties to Russia.

Captain Fanell: The Trump administration really understood the link between Russia and China, the threat of the two countries working hand in hand.

The other day, there was a report in PLA Daily in which the Chinese Defense Ministry claimed, “China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership serves as an example of international relations.”

China says they have to partner with Russia because they’re facing a threat from NATO. “The United Kingdom and France are going to send aircraft carriers to the South China Sea,” they say. It’s ridiculous. NATO is not a military threat to China, but they use that as an excuse to justify becoming closer to Russia.

――The Biden administration claims Russia to be a greater enemy than China.

Captain Fanell: The Democrat Party has flipped its position on Russia over the course of my lifetime.

When President Reagan was president, he was the champion against the Soviet Union. He called it the evil empire. When he made those speeches, it was the Democratic Party who criticized him. The Democratic Party, who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, all of a sudden switched under the Trump administration, and portrayed themselves as the great champions of freedom against Russia. It was hypocritical and ironic that the Democratic Party would somehow posture themselves to be the savior and defender against Russian influence after 30 years of being friendly to the Soviet Union. The Democrats don’t have any moral authority in my view.

The Trump administration was very tough on Russia. They did things that no other administration had done before, operating a carrier air wing in the Baltic and sending the U.S. Marines to Norway and operate in a joint exercise with Finland. These measures had never been done before. They also beefed-up military presence and Aegis Ashore in Poland and Romania. They sent an aircraft carrier, Truman, which went above the Arctic Circle for the first time in over 30 years. America under the Trump administration took tough actions on Russia, but a lot of them never got reported in the American press.

Now we are seeing the Russian military mass on the Donbass and threaten Ukraine just like during the Obama administration. The world, especially Beijing, is watching to see if the Biden administration will have more than just words for Russia when it comes to defending the Ukraine. If the Biden administration fails to stand-up to Russia in the Ukraine it could have implications for the PRC’s actions against Taiwan…and Japan.

Biden Administration’s Commitment to Be Tested in South China Sea, Taiwan, Myanmar
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