In Announcing ASEAN Trip, Pentagon Gets Revenge on China

Why did the Pentagon announce Hagel’s ASEAN visit while China’s Defense Minister was in the building?

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has developed a pattern of sorts in recent years. Specifically, when China is hosting a senior-level U.S. official, particularly a defense official, the PLA shows off some of its new toys.

The most egregious example (though hardly the only one) of this was when then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited China in January 2011 to meet with President Hu Jintao. The trip was aimed at reducing tensions in what had become an increasingly strained bilateral relationship throughout 2010. However, a few hours before Gates arrived in China for his meeting with Hu, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) conducted the first-ever test flight of its new stealth fighter jet, the J-20.

The message was unmistakable. This was not only China or the PLA trying to give a firsthand demonstration of its growing prowess to visiting U.S. officials, but rather a very personal affront to Gates himself.  Only a couple of years earlier Gates had been leading the charge to end production on the F-22s. This created a contentious battle in Washington. In making his case in a Chicago speech in 2009, Gates explained:

“Consider that by 2020, the United States is projected to have nearly 2,500 manned combat aircraft of all kinds. Of those, nearly 1,100 will be the most advanced fifth generation F-35s and F-22s. China, by contrast, is projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gap only widens. The U.S. will have approximately 1,700 of the most advanced fifth generation fighters versus a handful of comparable aircraft for the Chinese.”

While one can quibble about whether China’s J-20 jets are comparable to F-22s, they have the stealth attributes that characterize 5th generation aircraft.  Thus, as one commentator stated at the time: “Beijing now possesses an apparently flyable prototype fifth-generation fighter, making it only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to join the stealth club.” And if the J-20 was conducting test flights in 2011, the PLAAF was certain to have more than a handful on hand by 2025.  

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Making matters worse, when Gates and his delegation confronted Hu about the flight test during their meeting, he didn’t seem aware that it had taken place at all, according to U.S. officials present. This obviously reignited concerns on the U.S. side that the civilian leadership in China was not in control of its armed forces. If this true, it also meant that the PLA alone was behind the spite against Gates.

Given the transparency of the U.S. system, the Pentagon and U.S. military cannot really respond in kind by unveiling a hugely secretive major weapons system when a Chinese defense minister is in town. Yesterday, however, it appears to have found the next best thing.

On Monday China’s Minister of National Defense, General Chang Wanquan, was in Washington, DC to hold a meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Regional security was supposed to be one of the top items discussed in the Chang-Hagel meeting. This appeared to have been the case, at least according to DEFCON Hill which reported that China took “a hardline on regional security during the Pentagon meeting” and post-meeting press conference.

Meanwhile, during this tense meeting and press conference on regional security, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little released a statement announcing that Hagel will be departing Washington on Thursday for an eight day trip to Southeast Asia where he will make stops in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and, to conclude the trip, the Philippines.

To be sure, China knew that a Hagel trip to the region would be coming in the next week and a half as he will be attending an ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM+) in Brunei on August 29th. (The ADMM-Plus is comprised of the 10 ASEAN states and the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand).

But there was no reason why Washington had to announce the trip at the same time that China’s Defense Minister was in the Pentagon. That is, there was no reason except for the fact that the United States’ close military relationships with many of China’s neighbors is a constant irritant for Beijing, just as China’s fifth generation fighter jets are a constant irritant for the U.S.

Military diplomacy can be so petty sometimes.