By Bill Gertz
The Washington Times
December 22, 2007
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that recent military incidents involving the U.S. and China indicate troubling signs of division between Beijing’s military and the nation’s communist political leaders.
China’s refusal to permit U.S. Navy ship visits to Hong Kong last month and a provocative anti-satellite weapon test in January are prompting U.S. intelligence agencies to worry that the Chinese military is not under the control of the civilian government in Beijing, according to other defense officials.
Mr. Gates voiced similar concerns yesterday when asked by a reporter whether China had explained why it barred the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and accompanying warships from making a Thanksgiving Day port call in Hong Kong.
“What has been interesting to me this year is that I think we have had two situations in which there appears to have been a disconnect within the Chinese government,” Mr. Gates said.
After the Chinese military’s successful January test of a missile against a weather-satellite target, China’s Foreign Ministry “didn’t seem to understand or know what had happened” and indicated “confusion” over the test, he said.
“We seem to have had a little bit of the same thing with the Kitty Hawk, where the military may have made a decision that was not communicated to the political side of the government,” Mr. Gates said. “Now, I don’t know that for a fact, but there’s just some hint of that.”
A senior defense official said that Chinese President Hu Jintao was familiar with China’s secret anti-satellite weapon program but may not have known about the Jan. 11 test, which contradicted China’s public position against the development and deployment of space weapons.
A senior U.S. military officer said there also were signs earlier this year that senior Chinese air force generals were not aware of the existence of the anti-satellite weapons program, which is thought to be a top-secret effort directed by the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission. It is led by Mr. Hu as chairman and has two senior Chinese generals as vice chairmen.
Intelligence officials are said to disagree over the analysis of a Chinese leadership split, with pro-China analysts citing a split as explaining hostile Chinese behavior as the result of differences between hawks and doves. A similar analysis during the Cold War sought to explain Soviet behavior, though post-Cold War analysis showed the appearance to be deliberate disinformation.
Still, worries over suspected divisions in China’s leadership are prompting concerns about the control over China’s nuclear arsenal, which is currently expanding in both quantity and quality, defense officials said. China’s military is deploying three new types of advanced, long-range nuclear missiles and a new class of ballistic-missile submarines.
Chinese military leaders so far have not agreed to U.S. government requests for talks on strategic nuclear weapons, despite a promise made by Mr. Hu to President Bush last year to send the commander of China’s nuclear forces to visit the United States and the military’s U.S. Strategic Command. China’s military leaders are said to fear that talks on nuclear forces with the U.S. will lead to disclosures of information that could be used against China in a conflict.
U.S. intelligence agencies know very little about the forces and command-and-control arrangements for China’s nuclear weapons, which are estimated to include about 20 long-range nuclear missiles and several hundred shorter-range, nuclear-capable missiles.
Mr. Gates said that China is continuing its military buildup but that he does not consider China “an enemy.”
“I think there are opportunities for continued cooperation in a number of areas,” he said. “I still think it’s important for us to develop the strategic dialogue with China where we sit down and talk about how we see the threat, how each of us perceives the threat and the purpose behind our modernization programs and so on.”
Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military, said Mr. Gates’ comments on a possible split among Chinese leader is a cause for concern and should be clarified.
“If such a split is real, then he should also explain if there is a danger of a [military] coup against the party,” said Mr. Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “Such a coup could lead to a PLA-led war against Taiwan for ‘national unity,’ a war that could easily escalate into a nuclear exchange.”
Mr. Fisher said he knows of disturbing reports of tensions between the ruling Communist Party and the military over efforts by Mr. Hu to crack down on corruption in the military.
Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared with Mr. Gates, also said he wants to develop closer lines of communication with the Chinese military to avoid misunderstandings over issues like the Kitty Hawk, the anti-satellite test and Taiwan.
Asked about tensions between China and Taiwan over Taipei’s plan to hold a nationwide vote seeking United Nations membership under the name Taiwan, instead of the formal Republic of China, Mr. Gates said he is not worried “there will be a military reaction.”
Mr. Gates also called “specious” claims in the Chinese and U.S. press that the reason the Kitty Hawk was blocked from Hong Kong was Chinese anger that the defense secretary had not warned Chinese military leaders during his visit to China in October that the Pentagon was set to sell upgraded Patriot missile equipment to Taiwan.