I hope US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was braced for disappointment ahead of his visit to China, because that’s precisely what he was served up.
The test flight this week of China's prototype J-20 stealth fighter looks to have been a calculated signal of defiance by the People's Liberation Army. The timing amounts to defiance not only of US engagement overtures, but also of the diplomatic imperatives of the civilian leadership in Beijing. It puts a sting in the tail of whatever goodwill may have arisen during the Gates visit, and is an unpleasant curtain raiser for Hu Jintao's long-awaited visit to Washington next week.
China's security relations with the United States and other powers in Asia went through a tense and dangerous time in 2010, with repeated instances of diplomatic assertiveness and maritime risk-taking. In a fairly recent research visit to Beijing, I gained a clear impression from many sensible Chinese security thinkers that the civilian leadership in Beijing was well aware that China could not afford another year or two like 2010.
But there was also a sense of frustration and confusion within civilian circles about PLA behaviour and, to be fair, some debate and complexity of views within the PLA itself about the need for serious dialogue and confidence-building with the US.
I went away with the view that China's security establishment was worried it had gone too far, too soon in spooking the region (and thus spooking itself, given the worried and forceful reactions of some other powers, and the opportunity thus created for the US to revitalise its strategic presence in Asia). Many times I was told that China, including the PLA, needed a ‘cooling off' period and a stable regional security environment ahead of and beyond the 2012 leadership transition in Beijing.
Interestingly, many Chinese interlocutors were of the view that China could no longer afford to cut off military dialogue with the US every time there was a spat over political issues like Tibet and Taiwan. It was heartening to know that the Americans aren’t alone in their concern that, without permanent lines of operational and high-level communication, encounters like the 2009 Impeccable incident could escalate dangerously.
The bad news is that this realisation obviously hasn’t reached the highest levels of the PLA. Although rudimentary military dialogue has now been restored, the Chinese have been plainly unwilling this week to accept Gates' proposal that such dialogue be quarantined from political differences.
This may be no great surprise, but what is surprising is that China has also rejected a reasonable, even generous, proposal by Gates to establish a US-China dialogue on strategic stability—in other words, on the future of nuclear weapons in Asia and mutual threat perceptions related to nuclear and missile defence capabilities. Beijing's opposition to this idea is particularly bizarre because it would have accorded China the status of a nuclear peer with the US, previously reserved only for Russia/the USSR.
But the voices of moderation and engagement don’t seem to be winning in Beijing. This week's events suggest that the PLA has decided to do the bare minimum in restoring dialogue with the US after last year's tantrum over arms sales to Taiwan. The generals are not planning entirely to derail the Obama-Hu summit, but they appear to be warning Washington, Hu and his successor not to bother trying for ambitious security compromises and confidence-building measures.
And so the J-20 flew as Gates met Hu. This year probably won't see a repeat of last year's serial tensions around China's periphery, but nor will it be the beginning of a fundamentally more cooperative time in Asia.
(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)
Rory Medcalf is Programme Director for International Security at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.