Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent trip to Asia was intended to restart military-to-military relations between our two countries, reaffirm the U.S.-Japan relationship and send a message to the regime in Pyongyang regarding conditions for resumption of six-party talks. The most important objective was, naturally, the first. Gates’ principle objective was to reduce the growing sense of mistrust and rivalry emerging between the United States and China on security issues. Instead it sparked what may turn into an enduring controversy.
Gates’ visit to the People’s Republic of China was marked (if not marred) by a series of incidents that highlight the presence of an aggressive, even anti-American tendency in China’s security policy. First, there was the publication of photos of China’s indigenously-produced fifth-generation fighter undergoing its first flight test. Just two years ago, Secretary Gates had capped the production of the U.S. fifth-generation fighter, the F-22, based primarily on the argument that China was a decade or more away from fielding its own version. The message contained in this act was direct and even personal. Second, there was the hostile reception provided by China’s minister of national defense, General Liang Guanglie, in which he dismissed Gates’ proposals for military-to-military dialogue and read the Secretary of Defense the riot act over U.S. intentions to sell arms to Taiwan. Finally, there was the meeting with China’s president Hu Jintao at which that worthy indicated that he did not know that his own military had planned to test fly the J-20.
President Hu’s behavior raised questions among Western observers regarding who was in charge of the Chinese military. Coming just ahead of Hu’s visit to Washington, the publicity surrounding the test flight of the J-20 appeared to be a needless provocation of the United States. However, some commentators found in Hu’s apparent ignorance regarding the J-20 flight a sign that the Chinese military was operating outside the controls of the central government.
Either possibility is troublesome. If Hu knew then one might well conclude that the government in Beijing was seeking some kind of leverage over the U.S., possibly with respect to Taiwan arms sales, prior to the meetings in Washington. However, if the Chinese president was himself blindsided by the military then this suggests a military spinning beyond control.
The relationship between the central government and the military in an authoritarian system is often very touchy. The former needs the latter to maintain its control over its population. Nothing underscores this more than the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 when the military was called in to suppress student protests. At the same time, the military can become a competitor for political power to the traditional political elites. The military relies on the former for budgetary support but does not want its desire for autonomy and professionalism interfered with. These concerns can create a rivalry in which these two power centers, Communist Party and national military, enter the others’ domain in order to extend or protect their power.
China is clearly on a path to developing a range of capabilities calculated to counter U.S. military advantages in the Western Pacific. There is the massive buildup of Chinese ballistic missile forces, culminating in the deployment of an anti-carrier ballistic missile with a maneuvering warhead. There are five classes of nuclear submarines in production. China has deployed a series of surveillance satellites in recent years. Chinese cyber attacks have penetrated dozens of sensitive U.S. computer systems including the one that controls the national power grid. There are reports that the Chinese navy has plans to build five large-deck aircraft carriers by the end of the decade. Now, there is the apparent accelerated development of the advanced J-20 fighter.
Thus, the question of who is in charge of the Chinese military is of great importance to U.S. security. A military increasingly free of political constraints could provoke an arms race with the United States and its allies in the region not to mention a military confrontation. Just remember the crisis precipitated when Chinese fighters intercepted a U.S. P-3 reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace near Hainan Island in 2001. If Hu is in charge, then we face a more complicated situation in which China’s growing military power is a tool in the hands of a leadership seemingly intent on resurrecting the Middle Kingdom. Of course, either outcome does mean increased competition between the United States and China.
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