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Nobody Asked me, But—Paper Dragon(s)?

By Captain James Fanell, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The state-sponsored Global Times declared the aircraft carrier a strategic tool that would show “China’s strength to the world and shape the outside world’s attitude toward China,” whose “core interests are mainly offshore.” The account went on to assert that these types of operations would extend to the Eastern Pacific “sooner or later.”

Unfortunately, the coverage of this deployment received scant attention in the United States. Why? In large part because the U.S. Pacific Command did not provide the American public any pictures, video, or assessments. Instead, limited information on this unprecedented deployment came predominately from Chinese state media sources and limited press reports from Japanese and Taiwanese military sources.

Given U.S. national security interests in the region, it would seem natural that the first flight operations of a Chinese aircraft carrier should interest the U.S. public. Because the Pacific Command failed to provide reports of the Liaoning’s operations, Beijing once again had free rein to shape the strategic narrative that increasingly asserts the rise of China and the decline of the United States.

By engaging in a disciplined and publicly reported information effort with our allies, the U.S. Pacific Command could accurately have portrayed the capabilities of the Liaoning and her air wing. Such an initiative would have provided valuable insights into PLAN carrier aviation capabilities to better clarify the military’s role in Beijing’s pursuit of the “China Dream.”

The past 40 years of China’s rise, including its dramatic military modernization, generally have been characterized as a normal developmental trajectory for a nation the size and scale of China. U.S. foreign policy toward China during this period has been by dominated by the Kissinger-led “Engagement School,” wherein the top priority for senior U.S. military leaders and diplomats has been not to provoke China in any way and so to avoid disrupting the U.S.-China engagement process.

Unfortunately, the term “provocation” has grown over the years to include not providing routine and regular in situ unclassified reporting of PLA military operations to our friends and allies in the region and to the American public.

Some argue any U.S. military reporting about Liaoning’s flight operations would amplify China’s strategic messaging about the importance of the carrier, or worse, would feed Beijing’s accusations of a U.S. “containment strategy.” Instead, public reporting of PLAN’s actions at sea would provide the American public with insights into what is going on in the Indo-Asia Pacific region and how it has the potential to impact U.S. national security interests.

The U.S. Department of Defense and State Department public affairs officials should be recalibrated from reporting on blue force (U.S. and allies) activities to a new standard, requiring routine reports on what the blue forces encounter at sea. For instance, reporting on high-profile events like the Liaoning’s deployment, reactions to freedom-of-navigation operations, shadowing of U.S. Navy ships by PLAN warships, and the routine disposition of PLAN ships within the Indo-Asia Pacific region would improve the American public’s and U.S. government officials’ situational awareness of a growing threat.

The United States should build partnerships and make friends in the western Pacific by collaborating in public maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. For instance, a collaborative maritime reconnaissance patrol and reporting program using U.S., Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Indian, Australian, Malaysian, Philippine, and Thai reconnaissance aircraft would provide a much clearer public picture of the PLAN’s expanding operations. In addition, these operations would enhance mutual trust among our allies.

In February 2016, the Deputy Director of the Department for International and Strategic Studies at the China Institute of International Studies reminded the world in a People’s Daily editorial that China has never been afraid of “paper tigers.” Maybe if the Pacific Command consistently reported on the PLAN’s operations, the Chinese would come to understand the United States does not fear “paper dragons.”

Captain Fanell served a career in Navy Intelligence and retired from active duty in 2014. His last billet was Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.





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