January 12, 2011

Test Unrelated to Gates Visit, China Says

Featuring Abraham M. Denmark

Source: The New York Times

One day after China staged a public first flight of its new stealth jet fighter, a counterpoint to a crucial visit by the American defense secretary, this nation’s state-run media insisted forcefully that the two events were little more than coincidence.

But there was no response to the clearly nettled Pentagon’s take on the flight: that the Chinese military had staged the test without informing President Hu Jintao, embarrassing him as he met with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in an effort to mend badly frayed relations between the two nations’ militaries.

As Mr. Gates ended his three-day visit to Beijing on Wednesday and flew to Japan for talks with top officials on North Korea, China’s official Xinhua news agency quoted unnamed Defense Ministry officials as saying that the test of the J-20 stealth fighter was “not targeted at any country or any specific objectives.”

The flight, from an aviation design institute in the central China city of Chengdu, was unrelated to Mr. Gates’s visit, the report said.

On the Web site of China’s Defense Ministry, a strongly worded essay urged the United States to “stop pointing fingers at the J-20” and recognize instead that its own deployment of naval and air forces around China posed a greater threat to peace between the two powers.

Mr. Gates had said at a Tuesday news conference here that Mr. Hu had assured him that the test was not timed to their meeting. Asked whether he believed that, Mr. Gates said only, “I take President Hu at his word.”

But Mr. Gates said on Wednesday that China’s civilian leadership, a group that included Mr. Hu, appeared surprised about the test when he asked about it, raising the question of whether Chinese military leaders had independently sought to undermine Mr. Gates’s visit, which was intended to build ties between the mutually suspicious American and Chinese militaries.

Mr. Gates acknowledged he had at times questioned the extent of civilian control over China’s military, a concern underscored by Tuesday’s surprise test. But he also said he believed that China’s political and military leaders were committed to improving relations. He did add a touch of skepticism, saying: “Are there those who have issues with it? Possibly, but I certainly didn’t meet them on my trip.”

Mr. Gates spoke favorably of his visit Wednesday morning to the headquarters of China’s strategic-missile command, the Second Artillery Corps, which rarely opens its doors to American officials. (Donald H. Rumsfeld visited the center as defense secretary in 2005.)

“There was a discussion of nuclear strategy and their overall approach to conflict,” Mr. Gates said, referring to China’s policy of not using nuclear weapons pre-emptively. “I felt like it was a pretty wide-ranging conversation, pretty open.”

He noted another example of progress, saying that the commander of China’s nuclear missile forces, Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, had accepted his invitation to visit the United States Strategic Command in Nebraska.

Still, the stealth fighter test cast a long shadow on the trip.

Some American experts on China’s military and leadership suggested that the test of the stealth jet might not be the slap to Mr. Gates that it perhaps appeared, and that Mr. Hu would not necessarily have been expected to know of it in any case.

China’s military aircraft development is run by local factories, and decisions on technical matters like test flights are decided less by political or military officials than by engineers, said Michael Swaine, an expert on Chinese security and foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“At the very least, it’s possible, and some would argue it’s quite possible, that senior officials in the leadership did not know that this flight test would occur on this precise day,” Mr. Swaine said in a telephone interview.

Other analysts suggest that the extraordinary publicity surrounding the hitherto-secret jet, including its rollout at an easily monitored airstrip and a series of displays before visiting dignitaries, made it likely that the military was well aware that the aircraft’s first flight would coincide with Mr. Gates’s visit.

“China must be aware of the political signal being sent by these tests,” a second expert on China’s military, Abraham M. Denmark of the Center for New American Security in Washington, said in a telephone interview.

That said, Mr. Denmark added, it would not necessarily be surprising if Mr. Hu was unaware of the test’s precise timing.

American naval maneuvers and other significant acts are rigorously vetted by civilian experts in the National Security Council to ensure that a Pentagon action has no unintended effects on foreign policy. But no such clearance procedure exists in China, and Mr. Hu is far too busy to track every weapons test, Mr. Denmark said.

In Tokyo on Thursday, Mr. Gates held a news conference with Japan’s defense minister and said it was in the interest of the United States, Japan, South Korea and China for North Korea to “cease its belligerent behavior and its provocations.”

Michael Wines reported from Beijing, and Elisabeth Bumiller from Beijing and Tokyo.


  • Abraham M. Denmark