• HMAS Newcastle (left), and Chinese ship, PLA-N Huangshan, at anchor north of Melville Island during Exercise Kakadu 2018. Credit: Defence
    HMAS Newcastle (left), and Chinese ship, PLA-N Huangshan, at anchor north of Melville Island during Exercise Kakadu 2018. Credit: Defence

Updated at 12:30pm 17 August, 2019

It is extremely rare for any government, let alone the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to respond to criticism from private individuals. But here we are, and you probably don’t know Jim Fanell.

Jim Fanell is a retired US Navy Captain and former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the US Pacific Fleet. He specialised in Indo-Asia Pacific security affairs, with an emphasis on the Chinese navy and its operations. In other words, Jim was a super spook specialising on China. He had access to the most powerful intelligence gathering apparatus the world has ever seen and he trained it on China. 

Fanell won’t be traveling to China any time soon. He is unique in that he has been singled out by the PRC and their officially sanctioned media for a concerted take-down. His friends joke that he's reached celebrity status; the type that would get him disappeared were he to step foot on Chinese soil. What he said has touched a raw nerve and the Chinese are lashing out, aggressively to discredit this once relatively unknown man.

Over the last few weeks Chinese media outlets including Xinhua, China Daily, Global Times, People’s Daily, China News, Huanqui, Guangming Daily, and the Foreign and Commerce Ministries have all taken turns angrily labelling him narrow minded and extremist, “keen to concoct all sorts of sensational ‘China threat theory’”.

But what exactly did Fanell do to bring this upon himself? This July, he authored a letter titled “Stay the Course on China: An Open Letter to President Trump” first published in the Journal of Political Risk.

The letter was co-signed by over a hundred Americans, including academics, economists, former service members and intelligence officers. In it, the letter urges President Trump to continue the course of “countering Communist China”. Citing examples of bullying via debt trap diplomacy, the suppression of religious freedom and free speech, including the imprisonment of over one million citizens in Xinjiang, and the growing suppression of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The letter to Trump “welcomes the measures you have taken to confront Xi’s government and selectively to decouple the US economy from China’s insidious efforts to weaken it.”

Not even Senator Marco Rubio has drawn such venom from China. Sen. Rubio heads up the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. In October 2018, it issued a report on China’s persecution of Christians, its more than 1,300 political and religious prisoners, mass internment of Uighurs and other Muslims, crackdowns on Tibet and a democratic Hong Kong, detention and harassment of Americans, multiple “efforts to export its authoritarianism,” an “ever-expanding scope of domestic repression” with Orwellian technologies, and a “dire human rights situation” on a “downward trajectory, by virtually every measure, since Xi Jinping became Communist Party General Secretary.”

Jim Fanell’s letter looks tame by comparison.

Why then does the PRC government have it in for Fanell? He’s told some uncomfortable truths, but so have many people. Perhaps it’s because, unlike most presidents, Trump tends to listen to those outside the government and intelligentsia. And in particular President Trump values the insights of those who have served. 

Maybe the president is listening, staying the course and even upping the ante. On August 2nd Trump indicated that he will slap a 10 per cent tariff on $300 billion in Chinese imports not covered by earlier tariffs. That will further hurt the Chinese economy and potentially exacerbate internal tensions; something that sends shivers through the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and of course many of Xi’s supporters. 

As for Australia, talking to Fanell, as with many other Americans I know, he greatly values the friendship and alliance our countries have had over many years. In his time with the US Navy he had many interactions with the ADF and spent time here working and staying with friends. 

Our alliance, he states, is based on friendship. Our friendship is based on our common values, forged in combat against enemies of these principles of freedom and liberty. 

“Australia has always supported us and fought alongside us, from WWI and WWII, to Korea, Viet Nam, the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan,” he said.

What he’s seeing China do in Australia is worrying him. He cites China’s sophisticated and persistent aggressive behaviour, seeking to steal intellectual property while gathering intelligence on government and political secrets as being particularly worrisome. 

He is also concerned with the militarisation of islands across the South China Sea, but especially the recent news that the East Timor government is set to borrow up to $15.9 billion from China to develop the controversial Greater Sunrise gas project – potentially providing China a port on the south coast of East Timor, directly threatening Australia. And this is to say nothing of the prospect of other ports and developments across the Pacific Islands with Chinese support.

If and when this occurs, Australia will be in a particularly difficult and perilous position, according to Fanell. 

It is here that Fanell applauds Liberal Party backbencher Andrew Hastie’s assertions that while the West hoped economic liberalization would lead to a more democratic China, it has become clear that the world risks underestimating the Communist government in the same way France misjudged the threat of Nazi Germany.

“China learnt from other’s mistakes and couched their rise as being peaceful, while methodically implanting their ideology in all their domestic and foreign interactions from trade, to foreign diplomacy and of course the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).”

But Fanell disagrees with Hastie’s assertion that “It is also impossible to disengage from China, our largest trading partner.”

China needs Australia more than you think Australia needs China, Fanell says. With a massive population they need to feed, high quality iron ore for steel, and coal to produce energy, China cannot afford to disrupt this trade for fear of further destabilising their economy which exacerbates their biggest fear, internal disruption.


What is Australia doing to prevent China from encircling it via its Belt and Road Initiative, the creation of subservient nations across the Asia Pacific and de facto ownership of nearby ports, and actively meddling in Australian politics? Why are former high-ranking Australian politicians (including a former prime minister, state premiers, and former cabinet ministers) effectively on the Chinese payroll across organisations including the Australia China Business Council, and the China Development Bank?

To Jim Fanell these are classic Cold War era tactics to bring an unwitting country to heel. And what bigger prize for the CCP than a docile or compliant Australia?

Fanell’s biggest fear for Australia is that we’re slipping towards becoming a Chinese vassal state without a conscious decision.

Note: Lincoln Parker has been working and writing on Defence and National Security topics for over two decades in both the US and Australia. With a background in both government and industry in both nations, he has a passion for international relations and the role of innovation in the Defence community.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article listed China Matters as being on the payroll of the Chinese government. This statement was incorrect and ADM would like to apologise to China Matters for the mistaken inclusion in this context.

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