Is China's civilian leadership losing control of foreign policy to the country's powerful military?
The question is being asked because Chinese President Hu Jintao appeared perplexed when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' queried him about Beijing's first test flight of its J-20 stealth fighter jet, viewed as a display of military muscle.
The landmark flight occurred just hours before the two leaders sat down in Beijing on Tuesday for talks to mend soured ties between the two mutually suspicious militaries.
“When Secretary Gates raised the issue of the J-20 test in the meeting with President Hu, it was clear that none of the [Chinese] civilians in the room had been informed [of the test],” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Gates himself confirmed Wednesday that "the civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test" while assuring him that it had nothing to do with his visit.
The surprise test gave a perception that the People's Liberation Army top brass may have sought to dampen Gates’s visit and raised doubts about the extent of Hu's authority just a week before his state visit to the U.S.
Some even wondered whether the PLA wanted to defy the president, who had wanted the Chinese military to move to ease years of tense ties with the Pentagon.
But Randy Shriver, a former senior State Department official in charge of East Asian affairs, debunked any theory of a split between the Chinese civilian and military leadership over policy towards the United States.
"Its hard to know ground truth, but I’m skeptical about the rogue PLA narrative that seems to be gaining currency," said Shriver, now chief executive of the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, focused on public policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
"I’m inclined to the theory that the civilian leadership has given tacit approval to the more muscular military diplomacy," he told RFA.
In theory, Hu controls the PLA, being head of the Central Military Commission, China's top military body. He is also the Communist Party chief.
He is due to step down in 2012.
Some analysts believe Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, Hu’s heir apparent who recently joined the military commission, coordinated the test flight, which clearly showed that China's military is catching up faster than expected.
One Hong Kong newspaper reported that Xi had observed the J-20 test-taxiing at a military airport in Chengdu in Sichuan province early this month.
No clearance procedure
So, was Hu kept in the dark?
It was not necessarily surprising if Hu was indeed unaware of the test’s precise timing, Chinese military expert Abraham Denmark of the Washington-based Center for New American Security told the New York Times.
American naval maneuvers and other significant acts are rigorously vetted by civilian experts in the National Security Council to ensure that a Pentagon action has no unintended effects on foreign policy. But no such clearance procedure exists in China, and Hu is far too busy to track every weapons test, Denmark said.
Joseph Nye, a former senior Pentagon official, said it was not a complete surprise to him that Hu appeared uninformed of the test flight, which some analysts had believed was years away.
“The Chinese military often sets its own agenda on day-to-day operations without political approval,” said Nye, now a Harvard professor.
Still, many Western and Chinese analysts believe some factions within the Chinese military are pushing a hard-line agenda, which is having increasing impact on decision-making in Beijing, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Some analysts speculate that nationalist generals are now feeling their power, as they are courted by prospective members of the incoming ruling elite, and are using that to influence foreign policy, the paper said.
That agenda was apparent in China's more forceful stance last year on territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, and in hawkish public statements from serving generals and other senior officers, which often pre-empted comments from the civilian leadership.
Not the first time
But this is not the first time that doubts have surfaced about the relationship between the Chinese military and political leaderships.
In 2007, U.S. administration officials failed to get a basic diplomatic response from China after detecting a successful Chinese missile test to destroy a satellite, casting doubts whether Hu and other top leaders were fully aware of the test before it was launched.
In the same year, the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was temporarily denied permission for a long-planned port call in Hong Kong, also apparently without the Chinese Foreign Ministry's awareness, reports said.
Gates said he had long-running concerns about civilian control over the Chinese military, citing the need for a dialogue between the two countries including both civilian and military.
Gates' Beijing trip was largely intended to revive military-to-military ties that China suspended in January 2010 over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
But on Monday, his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, rebuffed a U.S. plan for a clear timetable of deeper strategic militarty talks, and made clear that China would suspend defense ties again if the U.S. sold more weapons to Taiwan.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in his talks with Hu next week, may encourage the Chinese leader to establish a new bilateral dialogue on nuclear weapons, space, cyber, and missile defense, said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Secretary Gates put forward this proposal in Beijing, but his counterpart replied that Beijing would 'study it,' which is usually a polite way of saying 'no,'" she said.
Shriver of the Project 2049 Institute wondered why the United States was becoming the "ardent suitor" for the military-to-military relations with China.
"We should be very comfortable with a modest mil-mil relationship rather than pushing for something more robust," he said.
But Glaser said, "It has become increasingly evident that a more robust military-to-military relationship, including more exchanges, more exercises, and deeper dialogue, is essential to ease mutual strategic mistrust between the United States and China."