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Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the apparent lack of communication between China’s civilian and military leadership is “something of a worry” for the United States.
Gates, speaking in Japan following a three-day trip to China, said Chinese President Hu Jintao and the civilian leadership seemed to be unaware that its military was carrying out a test flight on Jan. 11 of a new jet fighter that may have stealth capabilities.
“This is an area where, over the last several years, we have seen some signs of, I guess I would call it a disconnect, between the military and the civilian leadership,” Gates said, adding that while such lapses occasionally occur in the U.S. too, “this is something of a worry.”
U.S. military structure is based on civilian control by the commander-in-chief, the president. In China, Communist Party politics and infighting over promotions may affect the military’s decisions to pass information to the leadership, leading to misunderstandings and tensions with other countries, said Huang Jing, a professor at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Diplomacy.
“Maybe the military has its own agenda that may not be exactly on the same page as Hu Jintao,” Huang said in an interview. “The Party commands the gun, but who should hold the gun?”
Huang and others have cited several instances where China’s military may have been acting without direct authority from Beijing, or failed to quickly inform top leaders of incidents.
In March 2009 Chinese fishing boats harassed a U.S. surveillance ship in international waters near a Chinese submarine base on Hainan island, risking a bigger crisis between the two countries.
In April 2001, then-U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher said it took 60 hours to get permission from the Chinese for American consular officials to visit the detained crew of a U.S. spy plane that was forced to land on Hainan after a mid-air collision with a Chinese jet. The incident took place on a Sunday and U.S. officials were not able to immediately reach their counterparts, Prueher said at the time.
China says its military modernization is peaceful and understandable given the rise of China’s economy.
“China follows the path of peaceful development and follows a national defense policy which is defensive in nature and poses a threat to no one,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said on Jan. 11. Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, speaking the next day in Beijing, said military hardware such as the stealth fighter “is not targeted at any other country.”
Improving communication between the Chinese and U.S. militaries was a top goal for Gates’s visit to Beijing this week. Regular talks and more transparency over new weapons systems such as the new fighter help clear up misunderstandings among the U.S. and its allies such as Japan and South Korea at a time when the U.S. is looking to cut its defense spending and asking its allies to shoulder more of the burden.
Gates said that while he had no doubt about Hu’s control of the government, the lack of communication was one of the main reasons why the U.S. wants to improve high-level dialogue with China on military issues. Hu is also the head of the Communist Party and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
“This is an internal matter for the Chinese,” Gates said. “In the larger sense of who controls the Chinese military and who has the ultimate authority, there is no doubt in my mind that it is President Hu Jintao and the civilian leadership.”
President Barack Obama is due to meet Hu in Washington next week for the first full state visit by a Chinese leader since 1997. Yesterday Obama met with advocates for greater human rights and civil liberties in China at the White House, the Washington Post reported.