A senior U.S. defense official says China’s civilian leaders did not know about Tuesday’s first flight test of the country’s new fighter jet when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked about it during a meeting with President Hu Jintao.
The situation raised concerns among U.S. officials, coming during the secretary’s high-profile visit and just a week before President Hu meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said when Secretary Gates asked about the test during a meeting with President Hu Tuesday afternoon, "it was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed." President Hu is a civilian, and he is also chairman of the country’s Central Military Commission.
Secretary Gates did not mention President Hu’s surprise, but he did talk to reporters of his concerns about a possible disconnect between China’s civilian and military leaders, and the possibility that the Chinese military sometimes acts independently.
"I’ve had concerns about this over time and frankly it’s one of the reasons I attach importance to a dialogue between the two sides that includes both civilians and militaries," Gates said.
During this visit, Gates proposed a bilateral civilian-military strategic dialogue, but Chinese officials only promised to study the idea. Gates said he hopes to reach agreement on the dialogue during the first half of the year.
Gates said President Hu assured him the timing of the fighter test was not related to his visit, and the secretary said he takes the president at his word. But answering a reporter’s question, Gates indicated he thinks it would have been appropriate to delay the test. And the decision for another senior official to report President Hu’s surprise indicates the American delegation was angered by the timing.
This latest problem comes as U.S. and Chinese officials have been trying to put their defense relationship in a positive light, in spite of ongoing disagreements.
Gates said Chinese officials indicated they will not again freeze working-level defense talks and exchanges to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan or other policies with which they disagree. But he said high-level visits like this one could be affected. And Gates publicly recognized China’s concerns about the arms sales, saying the United States might be willing to reduce them in the future if tensions ease between Taiwan and the mainland.
On Tuesday, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, again called on the United States to respect China’s sovereignty in order to safeguard the defense relationship. Hong called for "effective and concrete measures" to avoid instability in U.S.-China defense relations, an apparent reference to China’s desire for the Taiwan arms sales to stop.
In spite of the clear ongoing tension, Secretary Gates described his Beijing talks as "very positive," but he cautioned that improving U.S.-China defense relations will take time.
"This is an arena where we have to play the long game," Gates said. "This is not an area where I think you will see dramatic breakthroughs or big headlines, but rather the evolutionary growth of relationships and activities together."
Gates said he hopes the strategic dialogue he proposed will improve the two countries’ understanding of each other’s intentions and strategy, as China continues its rapid military growth and the United States takes steps to counter it.
But Gates added he is not seeking arms control talks specifically. He said he wants a steady defense relationship, like the U.S.-China intelligence relationship with which he said he was associated when he was in the Central Intelligence Agency.