The big news out of Secretary of Defense Gates’ visit to Beijing is that China welcomed him with a test flight of the new J-20 stealth fighter, leading to speculation that the PLA has gone “rogue” and did not inform Hu Jintao before launching the J-20’s maiden public flight. As Reuters reports:
A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hu and other civilian leaders at the meeting with Gates did not appear aware the J-20 test-flight had happened before the U.S. side pressed them about it.
“When Secretary Gates raised the question of the J-20 test in the meeting with President Hu, it was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed,” the official told reporters.
The Wall Street Journal runs with the “rogue” issue:
China conducted the first test flight of its stealth fighter just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat down with President Hu Jintao here to mend frayed relations, undermining the meeting and prompting questions over whether China’s civilian leadership is fully in control of the increasingly powerful armed forces.
U.S. officials said President Hu appeared not to have heard of the test flight when Mr. Gates asked him about it in their meeting Tuesday, even after pictures and accounts of it had begun appearing online.
The moment had the potential for huge embarrassment for China’s top leader—who in theory controls the military as chairman of the Central Military Commission—just as Chinese officials anxiously try to clear a smooth path for Mr. Hu’s state visit to Washington next week.
If the military deliberately kept Mr. Hu in the dark, that would reinforce concerns that hawkish elements in the military are increasingly driving China’s foreign policy—including ties with the U.S.—and that they are trying to enhance their power in China’s domestic politics ahead of a leadership transition next year.
“It was clear the civilian leadership was uninformed” of the J-20 test, said a senior U.S. defense official after the meeting between Mr. Gates and Mr. Hu.
That is very scary indeed, if true.
I see at least four possible scenarios, and would love to hear other suggestions:
1. Hu did not know. This is the terrifying scenario, as it means that in spite of his role as head of the CMC and his promotion of many top generals, the PLA is at risk of major rupture with the Party and civilian leadership. In this scenario we can expect the jockeying for 2012 succession to be especially brutal and potentially spill outside China’s borders;
2. The senior defense official simply misunderstood the Chinese reaction and/or was misunderstood by the reporters. While it is probable that many of the Chinese government officials (aka civilians) did not know, Hu as head of CMC did know (UPDATE: Victor Shih suggested that Hu likely approved the flight but left the timing up to the PLA). Perhaps there is some ambiguity around the quote “it was clear the civilian leadership was uninformed” that led to the conclusion that Hu was unaware of the flight, as people assume he is a “civilian” and not also military given his role as Chairman of the CMC;
3. The senior defense official has a bias towards believing in a civilian-military split, and/or has an agenda to push said “split”. “Evidence” that the PLA has “gone rogue” would be a boon to the Pentagon and defense contractors;
4. The Chinese put on an elaborate charade designed to lead US officials to believe in a military-civilian split. Why would they do this? Perhaps they think that if the US believes that Hu is weakened and in a power struggle with the “hardliners” then the US will go easy on him to avoid “undermining” him and upsetting a “delicate balance”. If you think this suggestion is crazy you are behind in your reading of Chinese military classics like “Art of War”, “Three Kingdoms” and others.
It is surprising that the Western media has not mentioned that on January 6 Hu Jintao, in his role as chairman of the CMC, signed an order commending Gan Xiaohua, an aircraft engineer, for outstanding contributions to the development of jet engines. There is just no way that commendation and the J-20 progress are unrelated. So while it is plausible that Hu Jiantao was not informed of the J-20 test flight just before the Gates meeting, it is implausible that Hu was unaware of the progress in the J-20 development. Perhaps Hu approved the test but not the timing? (For more discussion on China’s jet engine development, see this Washington Post article arguing that China can not build their own engines, and this Wall Street Journal article arguing that China can. The opposite conclusions just reinforce how little we know about China’s military.)
Whatever game the Chinese are playing, it will likely play out through increased tensions and an escalating arms race. The J-20 test flight timing was an intentional snub and warning to Gates and the US, but the US and regional allies are not going to be scared by a test flight. They are going to be further convinced to trust neither China’s rhetoric nor its intentions, and therefore will continue to strengthen strategic alliances and accelerate weapons development and procurement plans to counter China’s regional rise.
If China’s wants an arms race then flying the J-20 while Gates was in Beijing was a great way to spur one. As my friend David Wolf suggests, perhaps some in the PLA want an arms race, as they believe they can bankrupt the US just as the US bankrupted the USSR. That would be a dangerous misunderstanding of America’s economy. As much as people like to talk about the economic decline of America, it is a very long way from the USSR.
Regardless of whether Hu knew of the J-20 flight or not, good times are ahead for defense contractors around the world.