The director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet is warning that China is training for a "short, sharp war" with Japan and is expanding its forces at a time of U.S. defense budget cuts and questionable resource commitments to the Pacific.
Capt. James Fanell made waves in 2013 when he spoke at a maritime conference in San Diego and complained about a destabilizing China that was at the center of virtually every maritime dispute in the East Asian region.
At this year's conference, Fanell said, "No one likes an ‘I told you so,' but I will ask you to indulge me as my remarks will have a bit of the ‘I told you so' in them as we witness the PRC (People's Republic of China) continue its maritime expansionism campaign over the course of the last year."
It's not just Beijing's words, Fanell said Feb. 13; it's the actions of the Chinese navy and coast guard "that are responsible for upsetting the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region."
In the second half of 2013, China's naval training changed focus toward realistic combat operations on the high seas, Fanell said.
China's "Mission Action 2013" was conducted in order "to be able to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea" and to seize the disputed Senkaku islands or even one of the southern Ryukyu islands, Fanell said.
He said that after his "plain, direct assessment" of China's ambitions last year, he thought he might not be invited to the 2014 West Conference.
Rear Adm. James Foggo III, an assistant deputy chief of naval operations, knew what was coming and said in his introduction of Fanell, whom he called a "spectacular intelligence officer," that "he was here last year, he got your juices flowing," adding, "You ain't seen nothing yet."
Fanell's sharp tongue comes amid growing concern about China's military intentions and a divide between the hawkish "dragon slayers" and diplomacy-minded "panda huggers" within the U.S. military.
Foggo said at the conference that the focus of the session with Fanell and several other experts was, "What about China? Is China the panda or the dragon?"
Despite some setbacks last year, Foggo said, China and the United States have agreed to 20 percent more military engagements in 2014, which help prevent misunderstandings that could lead to a conflict.
"That's progress, including their (China's) participation for the first time ever in RIMPAC," Foggo said.
China accepted an invitation to participate in the Rim of the Pacific war games off Hawaii this summer. Which ships China will send hasn't been revealed by the Navy.
Fanell noted that last year he said China was taking control of maritime areas that had never been controlled by China in 5,000 years, "and is now doing it in an area up to 900 miles from the mainland — as close as dozens of miles off the coasts of other nations."
The speech was controversial then, he said.
"What a difference a year makes," he added. "As it turns out, China's navy and civil maritime organizations have more than validated our concerns."
Tensions in the South and East China seas have worsened, with the Chinese coast guard "playing the role of antagonist, harassing China's neighbors, while (People's Liberation Army) navy ships, their protectors, conduct port calls throughout the region promising friendship and cooperation," Fanell said.
The Chinese coast guard and navy campaign "is being meticulously coordinated from Beijing," he said.
Fanell said the amount of time the PLA navy surface action groups train in the Philippine seas now rivals that of the U.S. Navy, and he predicts China will declare this year or next an "air defense identification zone" in the South China Sea to try to control all shipping and aircraft within the area.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said at a briefing last week that the comments made by Fanell "were his views to express."
"What I can tell you about what (Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel) believes is that, that we all continue to believe, that the peaceful, prosperous rise of China is a good thing for the region, for the world," Kirby said.
Another speaker at the conference, James R. Holmes, a professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, posited ways "China could get the best of America in the strategic competition presently underway."
Although much is made of America's outsize defense spending, that force is spread around the world, and Holmes said the PLA "has the luxury of concentrating all its forces and efforts against a fraction of the U.S. armed forces."
How much of that U.S. force is being devoted to the Pacific is debatable — even with the so-called "re-balance" to the region.
Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was asked in a recent question-and-answer piece in Defense News whether resources are being committed to the region.
"I would say that the resources have not followed the comment of re-balance into the Pacific," he said.
One reason has to do with ongoing operations in the Middle East.
"And the other reason is sequestration and the cuts in defense make it actually incredibly hard to find places to pivot money to the Pacific," Carlisle was quoted as saying.