An expert's point of view on a current event.

Hu’s Really in Control in China?

Are the generals -- or Beijing's new leader-in-waiting -- now running the show?


View a slide show of China’s growing military power.

Images of China’s newly unveiled stealth fighter — designated the J-20 — just prior to and during U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit to Beijing last week underscored an uncomfortable aspect of an evolving U.S.-China relationship: Engagement is not winning over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The drab gray stealth fighter scooting down the runway and flying over Chengdu hours before President Hu Jintao met Gates served as a clear reminder to the United States about the competitive, confrontational China that comprises one aspect of its rapid rise.

Meanwhile, Hu’s upcoming visit to Washington this week will symbolize the cooperative nature of a bilateral relationship. Billions of dollars in two-way trade, investment, and planeloads full of students, tourists, business people, and officials flying between the two countries on a daily basis reminds us that we are clearly not facing a new Cold War with China.

However, China’s assertive tone and confrontational approach toward neighbors and the United States over the past year raises questions about China’s intent. Shortly after the J-20 took its first test flight in front of spectators lining the periphery of the airfield, Gates reportedly asked Hu about the fighter plane, only to be met with blank stares and confusion from both civilian and military officials in the room. Immediately after the meeting, speculation ran rampant that Hu had been unaware of the test flight.

Before jumping to conclusions, however, let’s remember that China’s national security decision-making process is opaque, and so this worrisome disconnect — who knew what when — is difficult to ascertain with certainty. It is highly improbable that Hu was unaware of the development of this major military advancement. His role as chairman of the Central Military Commission ensures that he is well briefed about major programs, and he doubtlessly approves their large budgets. What is not known is how much oversight and control the central government leadership in Beijing had over the PLA’s decision-making process that lead to highly visible tests at the Chengdu air base just as Gates was visiting China.

Similar questions have arisen in the past: On Jan. 11, 2007, China launched an anti-satellite weapon, destroying an aging Chinese satellite in low Earth orbit, but the Foreign Ministry did not publicly acknowledge the test for 12 days. In March 2009, according to the Pentagon, five Chinese civilian vessels “aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity” to the USNS Impeccable, blocking its path and closing to within 25 feet while crew members tried to grapple electronic gear towed behind the U.S. ship. There are many more examples. In each instance, the question arose: Were these provocative confrontations ordered from the highest echelons in Beijing, or were they the result of overzealous local commanders or even the plane and boat drivers themselves? Do these incidents reflect an intentional pattern of growing Chinese assertiveness and a long-term strategy to ultimately confront the U.S. military? Or are these Chinese overreactions to U.S. technological dominance and what the Chinese perceive to be American provocations — such as air and sea surveillance in international waters close to China’s shores and the well-publicized deployments of the United States’ most advanced submarines, ships, and jet fighters to bases in the western Pacific?

No matter how you look at it, the possible explanations for the apparent civil-military disconnect revealed in the meeting between Hu and Gates are troubling. Whether Hu was snubbed by his own military, or whether he had indeed endorsed the stealth-fighter flight tests the same day he met with Gates to signal China’s intent to challenge the United States — both possibilities are equally disturbing for the bilateral relationship.

If Hu’s presumed successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, played a role — even observing the tests at the Chengdu base as some amateur Chinese army enthusiasts have claimed — then it might indicate a difficult transition of power between the two in the run-up to the 18th Community Party Congress in 2012. Should Hu and Xi become embroiled in a direct power struggle (in truth, an unlikely possibility), each would undoubtedly seek to garner support from “patriotic” conservatives at home by painting themselves as defenders of China from the American hegemon; but this would limit their ability to engage and compromise with the United States.

Regardless, the pattern of China confronting the United States and its allies in Asia is increasingly well established. It stands in stark contrast to the close working relationship between U.S. and Chinese civilian officials and businesses, but it is increasingly apparent that there are two very different faces of modern China.

Clearly, the Chinese government is eager for Hu’s visit to the United States to be a success. It is an integral part of its succession process, a last “face-giving” trip to establish his role as a great world leader — cementing his legacy and enabling him to retire to the pantheon populated by Mao, Deng, and Jiang.

But the PLA’s reluctance to engage the United States mocks the rest of the bilateral relationship. Gates’s visit to Beijing was squeezed into the calendar ahead of Hu’s visit to Washington, ostensibly to help ensure the success of Hu’s state visit. Although the PLA carried out its orders and received Gates, the Chinese military’s lack of enthusiasm was apparent in the lack of progress in restarting the relationship. Gates had invited various PLA generals to visit the United States and proposed establishing a “2+2” dialogue mechanism — pairing civil and military counterparts at the same meeting — replicating a model that has proved effective with Japan and South Korea. The PLA, unfortunately, received these proposals tepidly, only agreeing to consider them, rather than accepting them outright.

In this complex environment, Hu’s visit to Washington is an opportunity to reinforce the importance of dialogue and engagement, made all the more important following Gates’s uncomfortable meetings in Beijing. But President Barack Obama should be cautious that, when it comes to Beijing, he may no longer be dealing with an executive in full control of all sectors of his government. Indeed, the Chinese have many ways — and perhaps now many stakeholders who know how — to say “no” without using the term.

Drew Thompson is a former US Defence Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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