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?