BOSTON—China's refusal to restore high-level military contacts with Washington has raised questions about civilian control of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), experts say.
In a possible sign of internal divisions, the PLA declined to extend an expected invitation to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for a visit following an Asian security conference in Singapore, Pentagon officials said on June 2.
China suspended high-level military contacts in January to show displeasure over a $6.4-billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. But U.S. officials believed that visits would resume after talks between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, as well as Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings last month.
"I'm disappointed that the [PLA] leadership has not seen the same potential benefits from this kind of military-to-military relationship, as [China's] own leadership and the United States seem to think would be of benefit," Gates told reporters, according to the Defense Department website.
The apparent differences have highlighted long-standing uncertainties about civilian authority over the PLA and its policies. On issues like military links with the United States, it is unclear who is running the show.
Anger over arms?
Richard Bush, senior fellow for foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said it is hard to tell whether the civilian leadership is using the contact issue to show its anger over the Taiwan arms sale or whether the PLA is acting on its own.
"Frankly, nobody knows," Bush said.
The question of control remains a perpetually murky area for observers, made even murkier by China's growing assertiveness as a rising economic power.
"There are some issues on which it appears that the PLA has acted on its own. A lot of these have to do with military operations or testing of new systems," said Bush.
In the case of the Gates invitation, it is likely that civilian leadership discussed the decision with the military, but Bush is not ready to conclude that it was sending a signal through the PLA.
"There is a zone of discretion where the civilian leadership will defer to the judgment of the PLA leadership on issues that are part of its bailiwick, and this may in fact be one of them," he said.
'Zone of uncertainty'
Adam Segal, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, agreed that the question of control is a zone of uncertainty in relations with China.
"Overall, we still think that the [Communist] Party controls the military. We really haven't seen the loss of political control," said Segal.
"That said, there do seem to be these situations where there are worrying breakdowns, where we don't know what's happening."
Segal cited a November 2007 incident when a U.S. aircraft carrier was temporarily denied permission to dock in Hong Kong, and another case in January 2007 when PLA forces shot down a weather satellite in a missile test, apparently without informing the Foreign Ministry.
"There clearly seem to be these breakdowns of at least communication, if not authority," he said.
"In any case, it's worrying," Segal said. In cases like the March 2009 faceoff between Chinese vessels and a U.S. surveillance ship in the South China Sea, he said, events could "spin out of control" if the PLA is following its own lead.
But it would also be troubling if the PLA were acting at the behest of civilian leaders, given Beijing's statements about responsibility, peaceful intentions, and transparency, said Segal.
'Hawkish' on Taiwan
The PLA could someday also pursue its own course of action in the event of a crisis over Taiwan, despite the recent trend toward improved relations between mainland China and the self-governing island, said Lowell Dittmer, a political science professor at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.
"We don't really know what goes on inside. It's sort of a black box," said Dittmer. "We've always assumed that the military has been the most hawkish on Taiwan, on China's right to reunify Taiwan and by force if necessary."
"That was true in the Taiwan Strait crisis back in the '90s, and I assume that's still true today," he said.
During the 1995-96 crisis, the PLA fired missiles in the Strait to discourage independence sentiments. Dittmer said the PLA has continued its buildup opposite Taiwan, despite warming cross-Strait relations.
"It's a conspicuous holdout against the otherwise fairly comprehensive thaw across the Taiwan Strait," he said.
Speaking to the Asian security conference, Gates argued that defensive arms sales to Taiwan are part of a decades-old U.S. policy and a condition for the normalization process. "This is not new news to the Chinese," he said.
Gates also made the case that the PLA's reaction "has not impeded the development of the [U.S.-China] relationship in other areas."
But speaking at the annual conference known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, deputy chief of the PLA General Staff Ma Xiaotian argued that China's military is not to blame for the breakoff of contacts.
"The barrier between China-U.S. military relations is not is not set up by China," said General Ma, the official English-language China Daily reported. Ma cited the Taiwan arms sale, the surveillance issue, and other disputes.
But the roadblock on the track of military-to-military contacts may prove to be an obstacle to a broader improvement in relations.
"We can make a very good case that dialogue between our uniform military and theirs is in China's interests as well as that of the United States," said Richard Bush.
Washington has been trying to get more of a military component into the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks, but with little progress, he said.
"China or the PLA is more inclined to use military-to-military exchanges as a litmus test for the relationship," said Bush. "When the relationship is going badly, they shut down the military exchanges."
The public focus on the PLA's separate policy is unusual, however.
Dittmer said Gates "understands that the political leadership is interested in talking and the military leadership is not."
"He's taking the rather unusual step of publicly stating that, in hopes of putting pressure on the military to talk," he said.