Hu’s in Charge?
Observers Wonder if China’s Leader Has Control of Military
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
There are new concerns that Chinese leader Hu Jintao and senior members of the Communist Party in Beijing lack control of the nation’s military.
The president of the People’s Republic of China also serves as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But some in Washington assert that Hu did not approve the January anti-satellite (ASAT) test that brought strong condemnation by the world community, saying this was yet another signal that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was not totally under civilian control.
There are fears that this lack of command and control and a growing nationalistic and anti-American trend in the PLA might lead to rash actions, even war. Earlier examples include the 2001 midair collision between a Chinese fighter and U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane, two incidents of harassment by Chinese boats of the USS Bowditch in 2001 and 2002, and the 2006 stalking by a Chinese submarine of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier.
“In recent incidents, like the ASAT test and P-3 incident, we have seen what appear to be disconnects between the Chinese civilian and military leadership, and a tendency among the military to portray the United States as some sort of boogeyman and China as a nation besieged,” said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
“It appears that in doing so, the Chinese military leadership is attempting to justify its importance to the country’s political leadership,” he said. “In any event, the military certainly has for roughly a decade now received double-digit annual increases to its budget. How independent is the Chinese military from the party leadership? No one knows for sure. However, we do know that the last Communist great power, the Soviet Union, and other dictatorships historically purged their military to ensure its subservience.”
A former U.S defense attaché in Beijing with ties to the U.S. policy community said, “There is evidence that Hu and/or other top policy-makers were not aware of the ASAT test. One indication of this is the amount of time it took the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MFA] to respond to the U.S. demarche of the test. The demarche occurred several days after the test, and MFA should have been prepared with a response — or able to provide one within a few days. Instead, the MFA was like a deer in the headlights, completely caught off guard.”
Lin Chong-Pin, president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies here and former Taiwan vice minister of defense, speculated that “the ASAT incident might have happened this way: The commander, after having failed twice in 2006, dared not report to Hu with full confidence that the January test result would be different. Hence, there was no prior coordination between the PLA and the Foreign Ministry, under the guidance of the highest authority in Beijing.”
Larry Wortzel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said the overall system may inhibit the military from telling the truth to Beijing.
“I think the problem is not the PLA’s allegiance to the party,” he said. “The problem that the party senior leadership faces is that the political system punishes initiative, punishes those who tell the truth and punishes those who take responsibility for actions. The result is that, at most levels, leaders are unwilling to pass along bad news [fearing reprisal] and hide or lie about mistakes. This is what happened in the EP-3 incident. I do not think military region commanders or most PLA leaders exceed their orders or ignore the Central Military Commission.”
Many still point to the EP-3 incident as evidence that the civilian leadership in Beijing has a poor record in controlling the PLA.
On March 31, 2001, two PLA Navy (PLAN) J-8 fighters intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II aircraft on a surveillance mission in international airspace over the South China Sea. One fighter accidentally struck the aircraft, causing damage to both. The Chinese fighter crashed and the EP-3 landed at Lingshui airbase on Hainan Island, China. The Chinese military detained and interrogated the U.S. crew. The incident ended 11 days later when the U.S. government issued a letter of apology. The crew was released, and the aircraft was dismantled and shipped back to the United States.
Randall Schriver, former chief of staff to Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state at that time, said PLAN leaders ignored a 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) that would have resolved the crisis quickly.
The MMCA “specifically addresses steps both sides agree to take in the event of an accident,” Schriver said. “The agreement states that both sides call for an emergency meeting between the two sides to investigate the accident, and adopt appropriate measures to prevent future incidents.
“However, when Secretary [of State Colin] Powell raised the MMCA and this particular aspect of the agreement, the Chinese seemed more interested in using the accident to persuade us to discontinue reconnaissance flights. … In effect, they chose not to honor the MMCA, and instead wanted to convey the message ‘stop spying on us,’” Schriver said.
A former U.S. defense official who monitored the situation from the Pentagon said that ambition, corruption and perversion in the PLA hierarchy led to a total disregard of international protocol.
“As a bureaucracy, the PLA is well-established and powerful,” the former defense official said. “In the case of the EP-3 incident, there were anecdotal stories of blatant and creative manipulation of the truth by a senior PLA general with an anti-American disposition. Ambitious, corrupt and perverse, Gen. Xiong Guangkai was a leading intelligence figure who is said to have twisted the facts in order to further his agenda.”
The former defense attaché agreed.
“The EP-3 incident is a good example of the [civilian] leadership being out of the loop,” he said. “In all likelihood, it was a case of the PLA circling the wagons after the screw-up. Chinese leaders are notoriously bad at crisis management, and the apparent disarray after the incident was caused by that poor ability and the PLAN withholding key information.”
He also noted that the incident with the Kitty Hawk “was extremely provocative, and it is doubtful any top Chinese policy-makers, including the uniformed members of the Central Military Commission, were aware that the PLAN submarine had been ordered to monitor the Kitty Hawk’s movements.”
He said the United States should be alarmed.
“The PLA has been much more hostile to the U.S. than the rest of the leadership,” the former attaché said. “The increased capability they now enjoy, thanks to years of budget increases, has emboldened some of PLA leaders to believe they can confront the U.S. military, and many believe they should. This may be because they believe it will increase their own stature and the stature of the PLA.”
Vago Muradian contributed to this report from Washington.