Hu Knew About The J-20 Test Flight?

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.

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

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35 thoughts on “Hu Knew About The J-20 Test Flight?

  1. Pretty insightful piece, cheers! My feeling is that Hu knew, although perhaps some of the other Chinese civilians in the room did not. When pressed about it by Secretary Gates, I think Hu wanted to communicate with his entourage and build consensus as to whether or not to go on record as having known about it and deliberately timing the test to coincide with the Secretary of Defense’s visit.

  2. Pretty insightful piece, cheers! My feeling is that Hu knew, although perhaps some of the other Chinese civilians in the room did not. When pressed about it by Secretary Gates, I think Hu wanted to communicate with his entourage and build consensus as to whether or not to go on record as having known about it and deliberately timing the test to coincide with the Secretary of Defense’s visit.

  3. You have echoed my questions exactly, Bill. I tend to think that the civilian-military split is not so much one of total available information, but on PR strategy. Hu definitely knew about the project, and probably some civilians in the bunch did, but they were not expecting the J-20 test flight details to be leaked so brazenly.

    I do have a question for you, however. The military brass and connected hawkish officials exercise influence over foreign affairs, and sometimes the influence can throw a wrench into MOFA’s gears. Is this any different compared to how beltway politics work in the US?

    • Concur. Geremie Barme made a similar point at a recent lecture. Hu is a “company man” who knows all about handling foreigners. He found it “risible” that there was so much speculation about Hu not knowing. I trust Barme’s judgement more than dozens of other pundits.

  4. You have echoed my questions exactly, Bill. I tend to think that the civilian-military split is not so much one of total available information, but on PR strategy. Hu definitely knew about the project, and probably some civilians in the bunch did, but they were not expecting the J-20 test flight details to be leaked so brazenly.

    I do have a question for you, however. The military brass and connected hawkish officials exercise influence over foreign affairs, and sometimes the influence can throw a wrench into MOFA’s gears. Is this any different compared to how beltway politics work in the US?

    • Concur. Geremie Barme made a similar point at a recent lecture. Hu is a “company man” who knows all about handling foreigners. He found it “risible” that there was so much speculation about Hu not knowing. I trust Barme’s judgement more than dozens of other pundits.

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  6. There was an article in hard copy edition of Ming Pao in HK 2 days ago saying that Xi Jinping was in attendance for the J-20 test. Could just be a rumor, could suggest the NYT article above is wrong, could suggest that Xi knew but Hu didn’t, or could suggest that the top leadership knew and Gates arrived at the wrong conclusion…

  7. There was an article in hard copy edition of Ming Pao in HK 2 days ago saying that Xi Jinping was in attendance for the J-20 test. Could just be a rumor, could suggest the NYT article above is wrong, could suggest that Xi knew but Hu didn’t, or could suggest that the top leadership knew and Gates arrived at the wrong conclusion…

  8. Actually here is a short summary of the article, I found it on the Ming Pao website but don’t have a subscription so can’t access full article. But it says Xi was personally there, toured the cabin of the plane, etc…

    ??????20 ???? ???????? 300???? (2011?1?8?)
    ??????????????????20??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????20?????????????????????????20?????????????????????

    • This Ming Pao report is about the January 8 runway test. It does not say that Xi Jinping was at the test flight, but I think is a major blow to the “PLA gone rogue” theory that some are pushing.

  9. Actually here is a short summary of the article, I found it on the Ming Pao website but don’t have a subscription so can’t access full article. But it says Xi was personally there, toured the cabin of the plane, etc…

    ??????20 ???? ???????? 300???? (2011?1?8?)
    ??????????????????20??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????20?????????????????????????20?????????????????????

    • This Ming Pao report is about the January 8 runway test. It does not say that Xi Jinping was at the test flight, but I think is a major blow to the “PLA gone rogue” theory that some are pushing.

  10. I reckon you are over analysing what appears to me to be a polite dodge. If X doesn’t want to discuss Y then saying “dunno bro” is a perfectly reasonable response.

  11. I reckon you are over analysing what appears to me to be a polite dodge. If X doesn’t want to discuss Y then saying “dunno bro” is a perfectly reasonable response.

  12. @50cents may easily be right. But it’s still interesting. There’s a parallel with space. Chinese officials are fond of saying things like, “Whoever conquers the moon first will benefit most.” This has imperial overtones and suggests that China is manouvering to beat the US in a race to conquer the moon. This actually is ludicrous over the next 20 years or so – it just doesn’t have anything close to the US capability (not to mention the fact that it’s far from obvious what any nation would get out of such colonisation).

    So, why do things that – if anything – are likely to provoke your military rival to spend more on the military? I agree that the idea of bankrupting the US is laughable (though those taking a long view could easily see the high levels of US military spending as a strategic weakness). My best guess is that the target audience is not in the US. By putting China on an (apparently) near-level military status with the US, such actions assist nation building at home, and may strengthen its diplomatic leverage with third countries. Plus there are the possible factional rationales you note – that these stunts may be good for eg the PLA even if they are bad for China as a whole.

    PS For more on the moon stuff, see my article at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/01/back-to-the-moon/

    • One aspect I can’t agree with; with all of these articles alarmed about China’s growing military capabilities, what about the United States’ growing military capabilities? China is both a partner and competitor to the United States, but it is not an ally. It cannot look across the ocean and be secure in the United States’ constant military advancement; with newer technologies, even China’s nuclear deterrence may become obsolete. And if the Chinese cannot do that, then they have much less options to defend against potential American blackmail.

      The PLA is ultimately decades away from the effectiveness levels of the United States armed forces. While its technology may resemble last-generation American weapons, the PLA has not been at war for 20 years, since the ending of the Second Sino-Vietnamese War. From observations from Western military observers, the PLA cannot do joint, and it has no naval tradition.

      What I am seeing here is that internationally, the Chinese are not allowed even to maintain the distance between American and Chinese military technology; the United States remains 20 years ahead in most technological respects to the PLA, and is constantly expanding its capabilities. If the Chinese develop new weapons; it suggests that the Chinese have expansionistic intent, if the Chinese don’t develop new weapons, they fall further and further behind tbe United States.

  13. @50cents may easily be right. But it’s still interesting. There’s a parallel with space. Chinese officials are fond of saying things like, “Whoever conquers the moon first will benefit most.” This has imperial overtones and suggests that China is manouvering to beat the US in a race to conquer the moon. This actually is ludicrous over the next 20 years or so – it just doesn’t have anything close to the US capability (not to mention the fact that it’s far from obvious what any nation would get out of such colonisation).

    So, why do things that – if anything – are likely to provoke your military rival to spend more on the military? I agree that the idea of bankrupting the US is laughable (though those taking a long view could easily see the high levels of US military spending as a strategic weakness). My best guess is that the target audience is not in the US. By putting China on an (apparently) near-level military status with the US, such actions assist nation building at home, and may strengthen its diplomatic leverage with third countries. Plus there are the possible factional rationales you note – that these stunts may be good for eg the PLA even if they are bad for China as a whole.

    PS For more on the moon stuff, see my article at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/01/back-to-the-moon/

    • One aspect I can’t agree with; with all of these articles alarmed about China’s growing military capabilities, what about the United States’ growing military capabilities? China is both a partner and competitor to the United States, but it is not an ally. It cannot look across the ocean and be secure in the United States’ constant military advancement; with newer technologies, even China’s nuclear deterrence may become obsolete. And if the Chinese cannot do that, then they have much less options to defend against potential American blackmail.

      The PLA is ultimately decades away from the effectiveness levels of the United States armed forces. While its technology may resemble last-generation American weapons, the PLA has not been at war for 20 years, since the ending of the Second Sino-Vietnamese War. From observations from Western military observers, the PLA cannot do joint, and it has no naval tradition.

      What I am seeing here is that internationally, the Chinese are not allowed even to maintain the distance between American and Chinese military technology; the United States remains 20 years ahead in most technological respects to the PLA, and is constantly expanding its capabilities. If the Chinese develop new weapons; it suggests that the Chinese have expansionistic intent, if the Chinese don’t develop new weapons, they fall further and further behind tbe United States.

  14. >bankrupt the US just as the US bankrupted the USSR

    Then why the heck is China lending money to the US? When the borrowers default, it’s the banker who takes the loss! Is this some new fantastical arms race where China gets fund both sides?

    The joke that “Beijing spends more on US defense than on Chinese defense” has been around since ~2005.

    • China “lends” money to the US because it has no choice. It is the inevitable consequence of a fixed exchange rate. There is no other market in the world but US treasuries that could possibly absorb the excess cash that is created by China’s trade surplus. The US buys stuff from China. We give them dollars. China has to find something to do with those dollars that gives them a return on investment, or they are just losing money to inflation. Which is why they own more than a $1trillion in US treasuries. Its not exactly a gesture of goodwill that they invest in the US. Its that they have no other choice.

      • I completely agree with you but my point stands that as long as China is still financing America, she is by extension financing America’s generous military budget.

        The more I look at this issue the more I feel the whole thing is grossly blown out of proportion by the American press. It reminds me of the hysterical coverage of Obama’s visit to China when all American papers were screaming that Obama had been snubbed and dishonored.

  15. >bankrupt the US just as the US bankrupted the USSR

    Then why the heck is China lending money to the US? When the borrowers default, it’s the banker who takes the loss! Is this some new fantastical arms race where China gets fund both sides?

    The joke that “Beijing spends more on US defense than on Chinese defense” has been around since ~2005.

    • China “lends” money to the US because it has no choice. It is the inevitable consequence of a fixed exchange rate. There is no other market in the world but US treasuries that could possibly absorb the excess cash that is created by China’s trade surplus. The US buys stuff from China. We give them dollars. China has to find something to do with those dollars that gives them a return on investment, or they are just losing money to inflation. Which is why they own more than a $1trillion in US treasuries. Its not exactly a gesture of goodwill that they invest in the US. Its that they have no other choice.

      • I completely agree with you but my point stands that as long as China is still financing America, she is by extension financing America’s generous military budget.

        The more I look at this issue the more I feel the whole thing is grossly blown out of proportion by the American press. It reminds me of the hysterical coverage of Obama’s visit to China when all American papers were screaming that Obama had been snubbed and dishonored.

  16. That military jet thing

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  18. Or maybe Hu was just doing what Chinese businesspeople always do when confronted with something unpleasant. Strongly deny as admitting would be a loss of face. Who knows?

  19. Or maybe Hu was just doing what Chinese businesspeople always do when confronted with something unpleasant. Strongly deny as admitting would be a loss of face. Who knows?

  20. I would think it’s more of a “don’t care” thing than “don’t know”. My guess is that some one told Hu: “We are going to test the new jet, is it ok?”, and Hu says “Sure, just don’t announce it yet. ” Then he spend the rest of the week worrying about how to deal with Bo Xilai and Wang Yang etc., until Gates arrived.

  21. I would think it’s more of a “don’t care” thing than “don’t know”. My guess is that some one told Hu: “We are going to test the new jet, is it ok?”, and Hu says “Sure, just don’t announce it yet. ” Then he spend the rest of the week worrying about how to deal with Bo Xilai and Wang Yang etc., until Gates arrived.

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