US and China Will Likely Go To War in the Next 30 Years: James Fanell

By Simone Gao

James Fanell: In the US seventh fleet, there’s roughly about 25 or 27 destroyers operational in the Western Pacific, US Navy. China has 250. That’s 10 times as many.

Simone Gao: The same quality?

James Fanell: Their quality is higher.

Simone Gao: So I just want to be clear on this. Even if the US has full will to protect Taiwan, the US might not have the military might to do so.

James Fanell: I believe that it is an open question as of today.

Simone Gao: what’s the possibility of the US and China going to war? In the next 30 years.

James Fanell: It’s very high in my opinion.

Narration: James Fanell, Former intelligence chief of the U.S. pacific fleet challenges the conventional wisdom that the U.S. military is unsurpassed by any force on this planet. While acknowledging that the Chinese military has strategic vulnerabilities, he warns that the U.S. might go to war with China over Taiwan in the next 30 years not adequately prepared and not confident to win. What needs to be done and is the current administration addressing these challenges? My interview with Fanell at a critical time when America becomes increasingly wary about China’s global ambition.

Title: U.S. and China Will Likely Go To War in the Next 30 Years: James Fanell

Simone Gao: Thank you very much Mr. Fanell for being with us today.

James Fanell: Thank you Simone. Glad to be here.

Simone Gao: Okay. So you said by 2035 PLA is very likely to attack Taiwan if the re-unification is not done by then. Tell me why you think so?

James Fanell: Yes. I think the issue of whether or not China will use force is dependent on the success of their other strategies to use influence, economics and diplomacy to pressurize Taiwan into accepting a political deal where they would become part of mainland China in some form or fashion. And China has been trying to work this, over the last many years and they will continue to do that over the course of the next 10 years. But at some point there’s going to be pressure inside the Chinese communist party, from especially the military to argue that, “Hey, if these other forms of pressure aren’t successful, then we’re going to have to use military force in order to be able to achieve our grand ceremony in October of 2049 where we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China”, which they talk about all the time.

One of the two Centennial celebrations that they want to have. So I’ve called this the decade of concern that starts next year, which is the Chinese military was ordered by Hu Jintao and then again by Xi Jinping to have the capability to take Taiwan by military force starting in 2020. So for the last 20 years…It even started under Jiang Zemin, but for the last 20 years, the Chinese military has been building up its military capability and Xi Jinping has given them a new organizational structure in 2015, created this strategic support force, the joint logistics force, he’s cleaned a lot of the corruption out of the military, got rid of the areas of the military that had nothing to do with war fighting and got them focused on being a true war fighting capability. So starting this next year, the Chinese military is going to be thinking that, “well now we have the capability to physically go out and invade Taiwan”.

Now some people doubt that they actually have that, but when you read what the Chinese say, and even what Xi has said, they believe that they have that capability and that belief is only going to get stronger over the next 10 years. And so the question becomes how late could you use military force in that timeline from 2020 to 2030 to 2040 and use an invasion and then expect the world to come back to Beijing in 2049 and participate in this grand celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the PRC. And I think the Chinese have an example in history where they know it’s about a 20 year period where the West will forget what they do. And that example was from Tian An Men square to the Beijing Olympics. That’s 19 years. So say 20. So if you go from 2049 back 20 years, you essentially get to 2030.

So from 2020 where they’d been told “be ready, have the military capability”, until about 2030, maybe 2035 as we get towards the end of that decade, there’s going to be great, great pressure for whoever is leading the PRC to use military force because they know that if they don’t use it then their ceremony and their celebration will be tarnished and that the world will still condemn them. And they also know too that especially with America being non prepared in this arena, that as America under the new Trump administration starts really gearing itself up to defend Taiwan, that they will be also running out of time. So this next 10 years, as I said, is the decade of great concern about what will happen in whether or not the PRC will decide to use military force. So the challenge for America and our allies is how do we deter Beijing from deciding to use military force? How do we throw sand into the gears of their machine and make them go back to the drawing board and recalculate the levels of troops and forces and missiles and bombs and all those things that go into a calculation to decide whether or not to go.

Simone Gao: Talking about deterring China. What about the risks associated with attacking Taiwan? China is not a benign neighbor in Asia. Many countries don’t like China. So if China really attacks Taiwan, I suppose Vietnam, Japan, all those countries are not going to like it. And also America. So can China take all these countries (opposition) at the same time, especially America?

James Fanell: So that’s exactly what China has been calculating over the last 20 plus years. And they have built and strategized what they call counter intervention strategy, which is to keep American military forces at arms length, if you will, outside the second Island chain. The vast majority of our forces. There’s some that are permanently forward in stationed in the first Island chain in bases in Okinawa and the main islands of Japan. But for the most part, the main majority of US military force would come from the West coast. And so the Chinese have developed this counter intervention strategy to be able to sink our aircraft carriers that would come into the region with ballistic missiles designed to sink aircraft carriers, the DF21D and the DF 26. They’ve built a whole litany of missiles from shore-based ground launch cruise missiles to air launch cruise missiles, to submarine launch cruise missiles to surface ship launch cruise missiles.

And then we saw in October 1st in the parade in Beijing, we saw these DF 17 these hypersonic missiles. So they got missiles coming in a ballistic trajectory. They’ve got missiles coming in on the surface with cruise missiles. They’ve got hypersonic missiles. So they’ve got all these missiles coming at our military forces, both those that are in Guam and ships and aircraft that would be coming into the region. So that’s their counter intervention strategy. And they believe that their confidence in their ability to do this is greater and greater than it was five years ago, 10 years ago or 15 years ago as I’ve been analyzing this and even 20 years ago. So today they are more confident than they’ve ever been in their military capability. And so they believe that they can keep America at bay and they know that countries like Japan…well Japan’s separate because there’s a high likelihood Japan will work with the U S on this but they’re not afraid of Vietnam.

They’re not afraid of Cambodia. They’re not afraid of South Korea. They’re not afraid of the Philippines. They’re not afraid of Malaysia. They’re not afraid of these other smaller countries. Now they will be upset as you say and there may be some economic consequence to that. But in terms of raw military power, China knows they have to be able to sink the United States fleet and shoot down our aircraft. And if they can do that, they are also betting on the fact that maybe this will be a great deterrent to American morale and will. It’s kind of the same way the Japanese thought.

Simone Gao: So I just want to be clear on this. Even if the US has full will to protect Taiwan, the US might not have the military might to do so.

James Fanell: I believe that it is an open question as of today, that we are not, in my opinion, adequately prepared to deter their decision making on that, let alone to achieve victory. So I think we need to really focus our attention as a nation on building up our military capability and aligning our militaries together. So like you said, what about these other nations? We should be bringing them into our network of sharing information, sharing intelligence training together so that if we do go to a combat operation, which I hope we never will, but if it would happen, the U S and Japan and South Korea and Taiwan…I don’t know about Vietnam, but we would want to present a United front to China. This may help deter them, until we can build enough of our own military capability to really make them recalculate that decision.

Simone Gao: Is the Taiwanese government on the same page with you on this issue? Do they agree with you?

James Fanell: I just met yesterday with some retired senior officials from Taiwan ministry of defense and they’re very, very concerned about the balance of power in the cross street dynamic.

Simone Gao: What do you mean by balance of power?

James Fanell: The military balance of power. If you go back 20 years ago to the 19…23 years ago to the 1995-1996 missile crisis in Taiwan in that time period, Taiwan air forces were superior to PLA air forces. There was no question that Taiwan fighter jets and fighter pilots could defeat what China had. The same for Naval a little bit. Now, 23 years later, the balance of power shifted towards Beijing and the PLA, they are the superior force now.

Simone Gao: Yeah. I think everybody knows that, but I mean, Taiwan is not by itself, right? They’re all always counting on the US.

James Fanell: Right.

Simone Gao: So now you were saying, even with the US it’s still might not be enough.

James Fanell: I would say…people have disagreed with my assessment, but my point is there’s less and less confidence in the people that disagree with me.

Simone Gao: Okay.

James Fanell: Because China’s military capability is so large today and so capable. The missiles that they have and the numbers of ships that they have…I was speaking with somebody on Wednesday at this event. A retired us Navy admiral and we were talking about…in the US seventh fleet, there’s roughly about 25 or 27 destroyers operational in the Western Pacific, US Navy. China has 250. That’s 10 times as many.

Simone Gao: The same quality?

James Fanell: Their quality is higher because a lot of their ships have these longer range, anti-ship cruise missiles. If you and I were to start boxing right now, my arm is longer than your arm. So if I want to hit you in the nose, I got a better chance of hitting you in the nose because my arm is longer. So China’s got longer arms than the US Navy right now.

Simone Gao: Okay.

James Fanell: That’s not good. And we need to reverse that.

Simone Gao: But what about…I understand that’s from the Navy point of view, but when there is war, there’s going to be all sorts of forces involved. Like the Air force, army…

James Fanell: They have a large, large number of fighters. More than we do. So air forces, jet fighters…Now we have a very good bomber force, but they have a large number of bombers. Now, their aircraft maybe aren’t as sophisticated as ours, but their aircraft have these very capable long range anti-ship cruise missiles and air launched missiles that can strike ground targets. So they’ve equipped themselves for this mission of counter intervention. And they have geography on their side. They have this massive mainland that only has to go a short distance. And we have an inferior number of forces that are in this Island chain. And so we have to do more,in terms of being capable to go toe to toe with them. And that’s not a popular argument in this town.

Simone Gao: No, it’s not. Even saying the words toe to toe…Everybody thought the US is much superior to any military force on the planet. Right?

James Fanell: That’s what we hear quite often. I would simply say that in a global perspective, yes. The U S can project power globally more than any other nation. We can send military ground forces from the middle of America to the middle East. We have aircraft to do that. We can fly tankers and refuel aircraft in flight. We can do a lot of things like that, but our forces are stretched around the globe. And so not all of our force structure is in the far East and it’s not all on the West coast. And it takes weeks to get from San Diego or the West coast into the fighting area to support Taiwan.

Simone Gao: Talking about modern warfare? Does the human experience side matter? The US has been at war forever. China has not fought for a long time. Is that a factor?

James Fanell: I hear that argument quite a bit, which is to say that China hasn’t fought a war since 1979 when they fought Vietnam. Now we know in 1988 they actually gunned down some Vietnamese sailors in the South China sea. But in terms of fighting a war like the United States has no, they have not. However, the United States has been fighting Wars for 30 years since desert storm in 1991. (But This is) In the middle East, in an environment that’s overland fighting in a desert environment against a very inferior adversary. Where our pilots could fly in the sky and never have to worry about another aircraft. Where we had total situational awareness and total knowledge of the battle space. We had the ability to command and control without interruption. The fog of war was almost eliminated for our side. Well, if we go fight China in the first and second Island chain, there’s no guarantee that we’re going to be able to fight in an arena where the adversary won’t be able to inflict pain on us. So neither China nor America has fought in this environment for a long time. So we’re both, coming at it as a “war at sea” environment, if you will, with very little experience.

Simone Gao: Okay. You just talked about Taiwan’s situation, if the CCP runs out of options (such as) infiltration, stuff like that, they will be more likely to resort to military force. So if the Red media and Red forces in Taiwan are really being cracked down, They can’t use that effectively as before. Do you think that will increase the possibility for the PLA to resort to force?

James Fanell: I think the issue of a fifth column of PRC sympathizers or fighters in Taiwan is a very serious issue. And there’s been reports over the last several years of Taiwan authorities finding caches of weapons that have been brought into Taiwan from mainland China. They don’t get reported on too much, but there’s reports of this. And so the Taiwan authorities need to, in my opinion treat this very, very seriously because in the event of an invasion, these people that are supporting the PRC that are living in Taiwan, they’re going to be the first people that are going to go into action. And so the question that you asked is, well, if those people are removed, will this cause China to launch an invasion earlier? I don’t see a correlation.

Simone Gao: Okay. You don’t see a correlation? I’m not familiar with the militias in Taiwan, the pro CCP militias. I’m talking about…if they exhausted other means to infiltrate the Taiwanese society, like using the red media and stuff like that.

James Fanell: United front workers department.

Simone Gao: Right. If those methods are not effective anymore would that increase the possibility of the CCP resorting to…

James Fanell: Yeah. I think yes, in that case, if their ability to influence the Taiwan people through media manipulation and cyber activity or other things like that, if those were less effective then yeah, then this is going to contribute to the decision making to launch…It would I think, influence Beijing to say, “well, okay, this isn’t working, so we’re going to have to use military force. My point is, is that there are people that are in Taiwan today that you have to be wondering that if a war were to start, would those people then start turning around and taking out their guns and shooting certain select people in the Taiwan government to cause chaos and disruption in the military to allow the invasion to be more successful? This is a great concern. And so Taiwan needs to take civil defense very very seriously. And I think the spy case brings this to the foreground in my opinion, which is to say the PRC had spies in Taiwan. Were these the only spies? Who else was there and what were they doing and how are they getting information and how are they supported and who are they working with and what was their tasking and what were they going to do if a crisis were to start? Were they just there to gather information? Maybe, but maybe some others are there to do more than that.

Simone Gao: I think the Taiwanese people have been asking this question forever and they continue to ask the same question. That is, if the CCP, if the People’s Republic of China decided to use force on Taiwan, would the US really protect Taiwan?

James Fanell: We have the Taiwan relations act that says that the United States would try to help Taiwan defend itself.

Simone Gao: It’s not definitive.

James Fanell: Exactly. It’s not crystal clear. It’s not like a mutual defense treaty that we have with Japan or with other nations. So this causes concern. And I know this in Taiwan and other places. All I can say from my experience in the US military is that we took this threat very, very seriously. And I would just say that it’s a known threat and we are aware of it. And as all militaries do, we do planning and practice for contingencies and prepare. And by definition, our forces are out there, these four deployed forces, the air forces and the Naval forces and our Marines. We’re living out there and in Japan and in other places and we’re sailing these waters and flying through these airspaces, all designed to tell Beijing, “you better not do this because if you do it, there’s going to be a huge cost”.

Simone Gao: When it comes down to it, it’s the president’s decision, Right?

James Fanell: Well these things take on a life of their own. I mean, sometimes it’s congressional support along with the president. Sometimes it’s the president alone. But yes, it’ll become a crisis. And so part of the…I think to your question is what does this matter to people in America? Why should the regular person in Iowa or Texas or…

Simone Gao: And also is Trump different from previous presidents when it comes to Taiwan?

James Fanell: Well, I think the other presidents would say that they were all signaling Beijing that you better not change the status quo in the (Taiwan) straight. They said that and they gave speeches that said that and their administration said that but the reality is, the status quo and the cross street dynamic changed. So they said, “don’t invade Taiwan. Don’t do this. Don’t do that”. But China ignored them. So now you have the president not only saying that, but he’s now taking different actions. For instance, the Taiwan Strait transits by us Navy warships are increasing, and the publicization of those transits put China on notice that you can’t just control the Taiwan Strait. That’s international water and anyone can go there and you don’t own it. This puts pressure on Beijing to figure out how they’re going to respond to this international….they don’t like bad press, right? So we’ve created a dynamic where now if they get angry or they want to say something different, they look bad internationally. They lose face as they should. So yes, this administration is doing much more, in my opinion, and it’s not just building more ships and planes and missiles, which I think is really, really important. But it’s also about publicly confronting China’s bad behavior. And that’s something (about) this administration that is completely unique compared to any other previous Republican or Democrat administration. This administration is calling out China’s bad behavior. And that’s really important.

Simone Gao: Is it working? Has China take taken the signal and changed their behavior?

James Fanell: Not yet in my opinion, but, but let’s give it a little bit of time. We gave 40 years time to the engagement theories of Dr. Kissinger and that didn’t work. So maybe we can give more than a couple of years to this new strategy.

Simone Gao: So what do you think China’s doing? Are they trying to wait it out to see if US policy will change, then they’ll go back to the old behavior?

James Fanell: From everything that I read in the Chinese press, they definitely do not want to see this president reelected.

Simone Gao: Okay. So if this building up of the American military and being more forceful in the Taiwan Strait and stuff like that continues for a period of time, do you think China will eventually change its behavior?

James Fanell: I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for them to change their behavior because the Chinese communist party has invested so much of their legitimacy in this issue. So I don’t think they’re going to walk away and ever say that Taiwan is not part of China. I don’t see that happening.

Simone Gao: No.

James Fanell: But I think what’s important is to be able to say to Beijing, “okay, you got away for 40 years of the West ignoring your actions to encircle and take Taiwan”. We just kind of look the other way. Like an ostrich we put our head in the sand and say, “Oh, it will never happen because we have the Taiwan Relations Act” and we said “maintain the status quo” and we, we felt so good and comfortable that we said all these things for 40 years. But the reality was that China ignored all that and moved towards encircling Taiwan with economic pressure, diplomatic pressure, information warfare, United front work and military pressure…hard power.

They did all of that. So now you’ve got a new administration that’s come in and said, I’m going to build up my hard power. Now It’s not there yet, but I’m building it up. I’m going to build it up and I’m not going to sit by and just ignore what you’re doing. So at some point Beijing is going to see this hard power grow. And the question is will they try to act before they see the hard power from the US and the allies get strong enough to physically, maybe, stop them or dramatically alter their plan? That’s an issue that some people raise, which is to say, by our own actions we could cause them to attack. This was the same argument that was made before World War II and it was said that the United States forced Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor because of the policies over oil and Japan’s ability to have fuel and energy resources. I don’t accept that analysis. I think that’s not true. The fact is Japan attacked America. They took the action, they were provocative. And if China attacks Taiwan history will judge them in the same way. And so we have to prevent that.

Simone Gao: So what’s the possibility, according to you, what’s the possibility of the US and China going to war? In the next 30 years.

James Fanell: It’s very high in my opinion.

Simone Gao: Really. And I don’t think everybody agrees with you. Probably the majority of the American people don’t agree with you, right?

James Fanell: I think the majority of American people are unaware of this issue. And when you talk to them about it and you explain the numbers, the numbers of missiles, the numbers of warships the numbers of submarines then people start to recognize the real threat. It’s the China hands, the people that have always been managing the US-China policy relationship…they’re the ones that say, “Oh no, this can’t happen”. Now you have others that are talking about a Thucydides trap and this kind of thing. But the majority of people are saying it’s not going to happen. You’re right, in the elites. I think when you talk to the regular person on the street, they recognize it for what it is.

Simone Gao: So if the US and China will go to war in the next 30 years, what would be the most likely scenario? What would start the war?

James Fanell: I think the most likely scenario is dependent upon what Taiwan does. And so if the people of Taiwan say that they don’t want to be ruled by the people’s Republic of China’s communist party if they continue to defy that pressure like we’re seeing in Hong Kong where the people of Hong Kong say, “we don’t want to live under this kind of system” then the likelihood of conflict will get greatly increased towards the end of the decade from 2020 to 2030. And sometime in that timeframe, the Chinese government will make a decision that says, “okay, we have to use the military to get what we want”. And it won’t just be straight military attack. This will come on, probably, the heels of maybe an economic embargo, some diplomatic isolation, cyber attacks…some disruption of the key infrastructure capabilities. Maybe the train systems get interrupted in Taiwan so people cannot travel and go to work. That kind of thing.

So these pressure tactics will come and then China will say, okay…there’s this cyber attack. They may not even say that they did it. They’ll just say, “okay, you’re failing. You need to follow what we say”. And if the Taiwan people and the Taiwan government resist and say, “no, we’re not going to be under your thumb”, then China will at some point in that in those remaining years decide, “okay, we’re going to have to now physically go do something”. So that’s how I think it will unfold at a strategic level. At an operational level, it’s quite possible that the Chinese military could be doing exercises like we saw that was reported this year, that were unprecedented since the 95-96 time frame where China was doing exercises in two areas near Taiwan at the same time. So you know they do these exercises and they tell us it’s an exercise.

We watched them exercise and then out of the exercise they could launch an invasion. I don’t think it’s going to be very hard at a strategic level to hide their buildup to prepare for that. That will be also another pressure tactic, which is to say if they start moving all their ships out of port, moving aircraft from Western China and central China to the Fujian province, if they start moving their missile forces out of their garrisons, and now you can’t find their missiles…all this stuff will be used as psychological warfare in Taipei to say, Hey, you really don’t want to do this. Or we will pull the trigger.

I think I would like to add one little bit about this idea that I get accused sometimes of painting the Chinese 10 feet tall, meaning that I’m saying that they have such a great capability that they’re invincible. And I’m not suggesting that, I’m not suggesting that they don’t have vulnerabilities both at the strategic level in terms of energy, access to energy sources. They have great vulnerability there. They have issues with demographics and an aging population. They’ve got access to water issues, so they’ve got a lot of challenges at a, at a strategic level, militarily. Those vulnerabilities are a lot less than I would like. But that doesn’t mean they’re insurmountable. So I want to make sure we I’m balanced in the sense of saying that the trajectory of where I see China going, the PRC going the strategic trend line of their growth of their military and their ability to inflict an invasion on Taiwan.

I see it heading towards the worst case. But that doesn’t mean that that trajectory cannot be altered. And so what I’m calling for is an altering of that trajectory. And so I think this administration has altered that trajectory already for the first time in 40 years. And so I’m encouraged by that. And I don’t think that that alternative, that trajectory is going to be the cause of China to do something bad. China once Taiwan, whether there was a Trump administration or not, China was going to build its military and threatened Taiwan. So when people say, well, the American new strategy is causing China to act, that’s just false. That’s a false assertion. China on their own is demonstrated over all the evidence that I’ve seen, both when I was on active duty military and since I’ve retired that China has had a strategy and plan to take Taiwan.