What if you could prepare for a state visit in Washington that boosts your public image while at the same time humiliating your rival and intimidating your neighbors?
If you are Chinese President Hu Jintao, who plans to visit President Obama in Washington next week, you can have all these things and pay no price. While Secretary of Defense Gates is in China to beg his counterparts to resume military ties, his guests tested a new stealthy aircraft – the J20. Washington’s response was to play down the test so as not to ruin the upcoming presidential summit. Some in the administration have gone even further, arguing that Hu, president of China and head of the most powerful party in the world, does not control his military. That line of argument does not exactly soothe. (A rogue PLA equipped with advanced weaponry? How comforting.) It is also highly implausible.
As China watcher and journalist Richard McGregor has written in his book, The Party, the Chinese Communist Party is like God, all-powerful and omnipresent. It appoints every major Chinese cabinet member, every major provincial and city official, the heads of all of China’s major state corporations, every editor and producer of every major news outlet in China, and the head of every major university and think tank in China. Are we really to believe that the same party does not control the most important institution in China? The PLA serves the party, not the country. Since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the party has very skillfully co-opted the military with more resources and a major role in restoring China to national greatness.
No, the nine men who run China do not allow flight tests of new aircraft without their permission. They tested the J20 during Gate's visit because they knew they could get away with it: Washington would not want anything to get in the way of the upcoming summit. As the Chinese like to say it was a ‘win-win’ (or a win-win-win): embarrass the secretary of Defense, show the allies America’s impotence, and still have a summit that makes your president look good.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.