BEIJING — With the test of a stealth fighter jet Tuesday, just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Chinese military provided a blunt demonstration of its willingness to challenge both the United States and its own president.
The People’s Liberation Army undertook the first test flight of the J-20 aircraft prototype at an airfield in western China, signaling the military’s opposition to Gates’s trip and to U.S. efforts to improve military connections between the countries.
The flight occurred just a week before Hu is to travel to Washington for a summit with President Obama. It was a clear statement that although Hu might want Gates in China to burnish his legacy as a steward of solid ties with Washington before he steps down next year, the military has a different view.
Making matters worse for Hu, when Gates queried him about the 15-minute flight, it appeared to him that the PLA had kept word of the test from China’s president and all other Chinese civilians at the meeting.
“The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test,” Gates said Wednesday during a visit to the Great Wall, adding that Hu “assured me it had nothing to do with the visit.”
Also on Tuesday, the second day of his week-long trip to Northeast Asia, Gates weighed in on the region’s most pressing security issues. He put North Korea on notice that its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs are “becoming a direct threat to the United States” and predicted that North Korea will succeed in developing an ICBM within five years.
Gates, in a first for a senior U.S. official, also gave Pyongyang concrete suggestions about what the United States wants it to do to restart stalled talks over its nuclear weapons program: declare a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula skyrocketed in March when a torpedo attack, attributed to the North, sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and they rose further in November when the North shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians and two soldiers.
North Korea surprised U.S. officials late last year by revealing a well-developed facility for uranium enrichment. But Pyongyang has yet to show that it can mount a nuclear warhead atop a long-range missile, and a missile test in 2006 fizzled after 42 seconds. A subsequent missile test in 2009 was more successful, although it failed to launch a satellite, the stated goal.
Greg Thielmann, a researcher at the Arms Control Association and a former State Department official, said Gates’s assessment of North Korea was meant to get China’s attention. “He was conveying to the Chinese, ‘This is important to us.’ ”
The bizarre drama that Gates — a former U.S. intelligence chief who has dealt with China for decades — witnessed highlights a significant trend in Chinese politics as the fourth handover of power in communist China’s 62-year history approaches: the increasingly assertive voice of the People’s Liberation Army in the country’s foreign policy.
Throughout the past year, the PLA has been a catalyst in a series of national security crises. Chinese fishing vessels have clashed with Japanese and South Korean coast guard cutters near disputed islands in the Western Pacific. PLA officers have engaged in verbal fisticuffs with senior American officials from Singapore to Beijing.
And PLA officers have appeared on Chinese state television, enunciating, much to the chagrin of China’s senior diplomats, what appears to be an ever-expanding list of China’s core interests.
“I call it China’s new triumphalism,” said David Finkelstein, head of China studies at the think tank CNA.
To that end, the PLA has found a perfect foil in Hu — considered the weakest leader in communist China’s short history, said Andrei Chang, editor of Kanwa Asian Defense magazine. Chang said Hu’s apparent ignorance of the test was part of a “soap opera” that is unfolding as China changes leaders. Hu is slated to step down, and China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, who met with Gates on Monday, is expected to succeed him.
Gates is on a mission to improve ties with the PLA, which suspended high-level contacts last January after a large U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. In June, the PLA rejected Gates’s attempt to visit Beijing. Western military officials have said that China’s military opposed a resumption of high-level talks with the Pentagon and had been forced into welcoming Gates to Beijing because Hu would soon be heading to Washington.
Gates said that he asked Hu whether the flight test was directed at him but that Hu assured him it wasn’t. “I take President Hu at his word that the test had nothing to do with my visit,” Gates said. Still, asked by reporters whether the incident was a sign of a split between China’s civilian leadership and its military, Gates said, “I’ve had concerns about this over time.”
China’s stealth prototype, the J-20, flew for about 15 minutes over an airfield in the southwestern city of Chengdu, where it was spotted carrying out runway tests last week, Chang said in a phone interview from Hong Kong.
On Sunday, Gates said U.S. intelligence had underestimated China’s ability to develop stealth technology. But he also raised doubts about the new aircraft, saying he was unsure exactly how “stealthy” it was. Chang said the J-20 took off at 12:50 p.m. State-run Chinese media picked up Chang’s report — a backhanded form of confirmation.
U.S. officials have said they want to engage in a wide-ranging dialogue with China about the tremulous security situation in East Asia — especially the Korean Peninsula. Gates on Tuesday further clarified that under his proposal, a new dialogue would bring together PLA officers and Chinese civilian officials and their American counterparts. The PLA is known to be uncomfortable sharing the stage with officials from China’s foreign policy apparatus.
Indeed, PLA officers, in their public statements during the Gates visit, have been lukewarm to the U.S. proposal. On Monday, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said only that the PLA is “studying” Gates’ idea, adding that the United States and China have several security-related exchanges.
Despite the flight test and Liang’s tepid reaction, Gates said he was satisfied with the trip. Liang said Tuesday that a senior Chinese officer, Chen Bingde, chief of the PLA’s general staff, will travel to Washington in the first half of this year. He said the PLA will discuss cooperation and joint exercises with the U.S. military on counterterrorism, counterpiracy, and humanitarian and disaster aid.
The PLA has wrong-footed China’s civilians before but has never so publicly embarrassed Hu, who is not only the president and general secretary of the ruling Communist Party but also theoretically China’s top military official.
On Jan. 11, 2006, the PLA shot down a Chinese satellite with a missile in its first anti-satellite weapons test. When asked about it, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that it was just a rumor and that top Chinese diplomats overseas had no idea it had occurred. Later, however, the Pentagon confirmed the test, and the Foreign Ministry acknowledged that it had taken place.
Correspondent Chico Harlan in Tokyo contributed to this report.