Deconstructing John Pomfret’s Article on Gates’ China Visit And The J-20 Flight

Veteran and usually excellent China correspondent John Pomfret has a piece in today’s Washington Post about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent visit to China. I do not think this is one of Pomfret’s best efforts, and I deconstruct it below. Comments are welcome, and for some background see this earlier post-Hu Knew About The J-20 Test Flight?

My thoughts are in bold after each of the excerpted paragraphs. I encourage you to read the entire article-Chinese military tests fighter jet ahead of Hu’s meeting with Gates.

“With the test of a stealth fighter jet Tuesday, just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Chinese military provided a blunt demonstration of its willingness to challenge both the United States and its own president.”

Really, the PLA is challenging Hu? Where is the evidence to support this very loaded and serious assertion? Isn’t it just as possible that Hu was in on the plan to flip Gates a J-20 bird as part of a message that “we have arrived, stop thinking you can screw around with us in our backyard”? Or as Victor Shih suggested, perhaps Hu approved the flight and let the PLA decide the schedule. But even in that case why does a flight before the Gates meeting present a challenge to Hu?

“The People’s Liberation Army undertook the first test flight of the J-20 aircraft prototype at an airfield in western China, signaling the military’s opposition to Gates’s trip and to U.S. efforts to improve military connections between the countries.”

How does Pomfret know the flight signaled the military’s opposition to the trip and efforts to improve ties? Isn’t it possible that the PLA wants to signal, provocatively, to the US and the world that it should be taken seriously and treated as an equal, and thinks it can use its display of new weapons to leverage concessions out of the US, specifically around Taiwan arms sales?

Where is Pomfret’s evidence that the military opposes Gates trip and better ties? Isn’t it possible he PLA would welcome more (though unlikely to ever be friendly) ties if they could get past Taiwan?

“The flight occurred just a week before Hu is to travel to Washington for a summit with President Obama. It was a clear statement that although Hu might want Gates in China to burnish his legacy as a steward of solid ties with Washington before he steps down next year, the military has a different view.”

Why does Pomfret think Hu wants to “burnish his legacy as a steward of solid ties with Washington” through the Gates’ trip? What exactly does that mean? “Military has a different view” seems to imply the PLA wants bad ties with the US and wants to weaken Hu’s legacy. Where is Pomfret’s evidence to back up that assertion?

“Throughout the past year, the PLA has been a catalyst in a series of national security crises. Chinese fishing vessels have clashed with Japanese and South Korean coast guard cutters near disputed islands in the Western Pacific. PLA officers have engaged in verbal fisticuffs with senior American officials from Singapore to Beijing.”

Were the Chinese fishing vessels who clashed with Japanese ships part of the PLA? How did the PLA catalyze the Diaoyu Island crisis, as opposed to the nationalist feelings of hatred for Japan and protection of what just about every Chinese thinks is their territory? And is this unwelcome behavior unexpected for a rising great power that survived and thrived after the near meltdown of the western economies in 2008, has increasing capabilities that overlap with US activities in the region as well as unresolved territorial claims?

“To that end, the PLA has found a perfect foil in Hu – considered the weakest leader in communist China’s short history, said Andrei Chang, editor of Kanwa Asian Defense magazine. Chang said Hu’s apparent ignorance of the test was part of a “soap opera” that is unfolding as China changes leaders. Hu is slated to step down, and China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, who met with Gates on Monday, is expected to succeed him.”

Is the Kanwa editor the best source on this? The assertion that Hu is the weakest leader in Communist China’s short history is just not supported by the facts. Has Andrei Chang never heard of Hua Guofeng? And is Hu really weak? Again, where is the evidence to support that? What exactly is the soap opera? So far the succession to 2012 seems to be moving about the way people expected it to, with alleged hiccup around the delay of the appointment of Xi Jinping to the vice chairmanship of the CMC. Did Hu delay the appointment? Did the PLA? Was Xi’s appointment actually delayed? We don’t know, but Xi is now the vice chairman.

“Gates is on a mission to improve ties with the PLA, which suspended high-level contacts last January after a large U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. In June, the PLA rejected Gates’s attempt to visit Beijing. Western military officials have said that China’s military opposed a resumption of high-level talks with the Pentagon and had been forced into welcoming Gates to Beijing because Hu would soon be heading to Washington.”

Wait, I thought Hu was weak, the PLA didn’t listen to him, and they did not want to help “burnish his legacy”? But Pomfret just writes that they did listen to him over the Gates visit. Which is it? If the PLA wanted to embarrass Hu, as Pomfret writes near the end of this piece, why would it “cave” over the Gates visit to help Hu’s summit next week? If Hu can “force” the PLA to meet with Gates against their wishes, as Pomfret is arguing in the paragraph, doesn’t that mean he still controls the place?

The PLA has wrong-footed China’s civilians before but has never so publicly embarrassed Hu, who is not only the president and general secretary of the ruling Communist Party but also theoretically China’s top military official.

Was Hu actually embarrassed by this? How does Pomfret know? Hu is “theoretically” China’s top military official? How many of the top generals did Hu theoretically remove and promote?

I stick by the conclusion in my previous post about the J-20. Whatever happened around the timing of the J-20 test flight, this performance is likely going to be a major fillip to an accelerating arms race between China and the US and its Asian allies. And given the way China is starting to flex, such an arms race is an unfortunate but not an unwarranted response.

I recommend you read Gady Epstein’s piece on this subject over at Forbes.com. Epstein concludes, sensibly, that:

Hu is chairman of the Central Military Commission, yes, and he can make his generals meet with the American defense secretary before he visits the U.S. The military does officially serve the Communist Party, after all, and Hu is general secretary of the party (the real post from which he derives his principal power.) But he rose to power as a civilian, and does not have the kind of singular authority that the man who anointed him nearly 20 years ago, Deng Xiaoping, had when he ruled China as head of the military.

The U.S. surely took note yesterday, because the question of where power resides is relevant to how it is wielded. That doesn’t mean that the PLA is off its leash and that there is a yawning divide between China’s civilian and military leadership: It means that the military competes aggressively for policy supremacy, with the security, propaganda and economic policy factions, with large state-owned enterprises, and on and on. For better and worse, but probably better, no one man controls that dynamic. Not even the man we at Forbes called the most powerful in the world.

You can follow me on Weibo @billbishop and on Twitter @niubi.

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2 thoughts on “Deconstructing John Pomfret’s Article on Gates’ China Visit And The J-20 Flight

  1. Who’s out of the loop here? Hu? Or Pomfret? When in the course of 3,000 years of Chinese diplomatic history, from the power plays and intrigues of the ?? and ?? periods to Mao’s dealings with the Soviets and Americans, have Chinese leaders played their hands openly and transparently to their interlocutors? Why should anyone think that Hu is doing other than whatever serves China’s long-term interests? Is it so hard to believe that Hu would lie to Gates? Is it so hard to believe that Hu fully supports the PLA’s modernization and pursuit of technological equality with the U.S. and Europe, but, at the same time, must also maintain “harmonious” relations with his western counterparts in the interest of economic stability? Testing the plane at this time sends a message that cannot be ignored, with the double-bonus of not just taking place during Gates’ visit but also right before Hu’s own visit to the U.S. Meanwhile, Hu’s feigning ignorance serves to cause analytical disarray and speculation abroad that confuses the west’s ability to understand and make effective policy vis-a-vis China, while also (to the Chinese way of thinking) serves to counter U.S. fears of China as a monolithic uber-threat. This has always been the Chinese modus operandi with regard to diplomatic relations. And with 3,000 years of historical precedents (??????????etc.), it is foolhardy to believe the winds of change are all of a sudden a-blown’ cracks in the Great Wall.

  2. Who’s out of the loop here? Hu? Or Pomfret? When in the course of 3,000 years of Chinese diplomatic history, from the power plays and intrigues of the ?? and ?? periods to Mao’s dealings with the Soviets and Americans, have Chinese leaders played their hands openly and transparently to their interlocutors? Why should anyone think that Hu is doing other than whatever serves China’s long-term interests? Is it so hard to believe that Hu would lie to Gates? Is it so hard to believe that Hu fully supports the PLA’s modernization and pursuit of technological equality with the U.S. and Europe, but, at the same time, must also maintain “harmonious” relations with his western counterparts in the interest of economic stability? Testing the plane at this time sends a message that cannot be ignored, with the double-bonus of not just taking place during Gates’ visit but also right before Hu’s own visit to the U.S. Meanwhile, Hu’s feigning ignorance serves to cause analytical disarray and speculation abroad that confuses the west’s ability to understand and make effective policy vis-a-vis China, while also (to the Chinese way of thinking) serves to counter U.S. fears of China as a monolithic uber-threat. This has always been the Chinese modus operandi with regard to diplomatic relations. And with 3,000 years of historical precedents (??????????etc.), it is foolhardy to believe the winds of change are all of a sudden a-blown’ cracks in the Great Wall.

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