The development and test flight of China’s J-20 is not insignificant, but it is also by no means a game changer in the U.S.-China defense balance. More intriguingly, the test highlights how China’s military increasingly is making its interests heard.
The J-20 Test Flight and China’s Strategic Concerns
The J-20 test flight shone a light on China’s strategic concerns and reflected some of the developing capability that
addresses those concerns. The Chinese fear a potential U.S. blockade of their coast. While this may not seem a likely scenario, the Chinese look at their strategic vulnerability, at their rising power and at the U.S. history of thwarting regional powers, and they see themselves as clearly at risk.
China’s increased activity and rhetoric in and around the South and East China seas also clearly reflect this concern. For Beijing, it is critical to keep the U.S. Navy as far from Chinese waters as possible and delay its approach by maximizing the threat environment in the event of a conflict. Though the J-20 is still a work in progress, a more advanced combat fighter — particularly one with stealth capabilities — could serve a number of relevant roles toward this end.
The Chinese are still in the early stages of development, however. They are experimenting with stealth shaping, characteristics and materials, meaning the degree to which the J-20 can achieve low observability against modern radar remains an open question. Significant changes to the design based on handling characteristics and radar signature can be expected. And true “stealth” is the product of more than just shaping. Special coatings and radar-absorbing materials only top a lengthy list of areas in which Chinese engineers must gain practical experience, even allowing for considerable insight gained through espionage or foreign assistance. China still is thought to be struggling with indigenously designed and manufactured high-end jet engines, not to mention the integration of advanced sensors, avionics and the complex systems that characterize fifth-generation aircraft. It is too early to infer much from the single flight-tested prototype, something the United States learned during the Cold War when initial U.S. estimates of the Soviet MiG-25 attributed far more sophistication and capability to the design than proved to be the case after a Soviet pilot defected with his aircraft years later.
The Chinese role for the J-20 is based on a different set of realities than those the Soviets and Americans faced during the Cold War, meaning the J-20 prototype should not be judged solely by the American standards for fifth-generation aircraft. More than having the most advanced aircraft in the sky, the Chinese value the ability to maintain high sortie rates from many bases along the country’s coast to overwhelm with numbers the superior U.S. combat aircraft, which would be expected to be operated from aircraft carriers or from more distant land bases.
The J-20 Test’s Timing
Perhaps more interesting than the test was its timing, with its associated political implications. For weeks before the test flight, Chinese message boards and blogs were filled with photographs of the new prototype on the tarmac, conducting taxi tests in preparation for its first test flight. Foreign military and defense observers closely monitor such sites, and their “leaked” images renewed attention to China’s fifth-generation development program, about which there has been plenty of speculation but little hard detail. Chinese defense and security officials also closely monitor such boards, but the officials chose not to shut them down — clearly indicating Beijing’s intent to draw attention to the test.
Gates asked Hu about the test when the two met in Beijing. According to some media reports citing American officials present at the meeting, Hu appeared surprised by the question and somewhat perplexed by the details of the test — the implication being that Hu was unaware of the test and that the Chinese military may have acted out of turn. Gates told reporters that Hu had assured him the timing was coincidental. After being asked for his own thoughts regarding the relationship between the military and the political leadership in China after his meetings with Chinese civilian and defense leaders, Gates noted that he had become concerned about that relationship over time. He added that ensuring civilian and military dialogue between the two countries was important.
Although Gates did not say the Chinese military tested the J-20 without political clearance from Hu, the idea was certainly suggested by the media coverage and Gates’ response. On the surface, this seems rather hard to believe. Hu, as president of China and general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, also serves as chairman of China’s parallel Central Military Commissions (one is under the government, the other under the Party, though both have exactly the same makeup).
That the head of China’s military would not know about a major new hardware test coming a week before his trip to meet with the president of the United States and coinciding with a visit of the U.S. defense secretary seems a reach. Furthermore, given the amount of attention just beneath the surface in China to the imminent test, and the subsequent attention in the foreign media, it would be startling that the Chinese president was so poorly briefed prior to meeting the U.S. defense secretary. If indeed the test surprised Hu, then there is serious trouble in China’s leadership structure. But perhaps the issue isn’t one of knowledge but one of capability: Could Hu have stopped the test given the timing, and if so, would he have wanted to stop it?
The Rising Influence of China’s Military
Rumors and signs of the rising influence of the military establishment in China have emerged over the past few years. Since the 1980s, China has focused on and invested in a major reorientation of its military from a massive land army focused on territorial defense to one that emphasizes naval and air capabilities to protect China’s interests in the East and South China seas and beyond into the western Pacific. This has included expanding China’s reach and a focus on anti-access and area-denial capabilities, with accelerated development in this arena in recent years.
Some systems, like the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, are uniquely tailored to countering the U.S. Navy. Others, like an expanding and more aggressive Ocean and Fisheries Administration, is directed more at China’s neighbors in the South and East China seas, and at asserting China’s claims to these waters.
This change in focus is driven by three factors. First, China sees its land borders as being fairly well locked down, with its buffer territories largely under control, but the maritime border is a vulnerability — a particular concern for a trade-based economy. Second, as China’s economy has rapidly expanded, so has Beijing’s dependence on far-flung sources of natural resources and emerging markets. This drives the government and military to look at protection of sea-lanes, often far from China’s shores. Third, the military leadership is using these concerns to increase its own role in internal decision-making. The more dependent China is on places far from its borders, the more the military can make the case that it is the only entity with both the intelligence and the understanding to provide the necessary strategic advice and perspective to China’s civilian leadership.
There is also the issue of a modernizing military looking out for itself, battling for its share of China’s budget and economic pie. A key part of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s fundamental military reforms was stripping the military of much of its business empire. At the time, the state — while funding the military — assumed that military-run industry would supplement the defense budget. In short, the military ran industries, and the profits were used to support local and regional defense needs. That kept the official state military budget down and encouraged enterprising commanders to contribute to China’s economic growth.
But over time, it also led to corruption and a military where regional and local military commanders were at risk of becoming more intent on their business empires than on the country’s national defense. Money that largely had gone to support the living of the troops was sidelined and funneled to the military officials. And the faster the Chinese economy grew, the more profit there was for the taking. Regional military leaders and local governments teamed up to operate, promote and protect their own business interests regardless of the state’s broader national economic or social priorities. China’s central leadership saw troubling parallels to older Chinese history, when regional warlords emerged.
In response, Jiang ordered the military largely out of business. Military leaders grudgingly complied for the most part, though there were plenty of cases of military-run industries being stripped of all their machinery, equipment and supplies, which were then sold on the black market and then unloaded at bargain prices to the cronies of military officials. Other companies were simply stripped and foisted on the government to deal with, debts and all. Jiang placated the military by increasing its budget, increasing the living standard of the average soldier and launching a ramped-up program to rapidly increase the education of its soldiers and technical sophistication of China’s military. This appeased the military officials and bought their loyalty — returning the military to financial dependence on the government and Communist Party.
But the success of military reform, which also involved seeking greater sophistication in doctrine, training, communications and technology, has also given the military greater influence. Over time, the military has come to expect more technologically, and China has begun experimenting with technology-sharing between military and civilian industry to spur development. The drive for dual-use technology, from the evolving aerospace industry to nanotechnology, creates new opportunities for military officials to promote new weapons-system development while at the same time profiting from the development. As China’s global economic power has grown, the military has demanded more funding and greater capabilities to protect national interests and its own prerogatives.
But China’s military officials are also growing more vocal in their opinions beyond the issue of military procurement. Over the past year, Chinese military officers have made their opinions known, quite openly in Chinese and sometimes even foreign media. They have addressed not only military issues but also Chinese foreign policy and international relations. This step outside the norm has left the Chinese diplomatic community uncomfortable (or at least left it expressing its unease with the rising influence of the military to their foreign counterparts). This may be an elaborate disinformation campaign or a slightly higher level of the griping typical of bureaucrats, or it may in fact reflect a military that sees its own role and significance rising and is stepping forward to try to grab the influence and power it feels it deserves.
One example of the ostensible struggle between the military and the civilian bureaucrats over Chinese foreign policy played out over the past year. Through nearly the first three-quarters of the year, when the United States carried out defense exercises in the Asia-Pacific region — whether annual or in response to regional events like the sinking of the ChonAn in South Korea — the Chinese would respond by holding their own series of exercises, sometimes on a larger scale. It was a game of one-upmanship. But the foreign ministry and bureaucracy purportedly argued against this policy as counterproductive, and by the fourth quarter, China had shifted away from military exercises as a response. Instead, it once again pushed a friendlier and more diplomatic line even as U.S. exercises continued. By the November 2010 crisis over North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, China had returned to its standard call for moderation and dialogue.
If this narrative is accepted, the military response to being sidelined again was to leak plans to launch an aircraft carrier in 2011, to reinvigorate international attention to Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, and to test the new Chinese fifth-generation aircraft while Gates was in Beijing and just before Hu headed to Washington. A Chinese military motivated by nationalism — and perhaps an even stronger interest in preserving its power and influence within China — would find it better to be in contention with the United States than in calm. This is because U.S. pressure, whether real or rhetorical, drives China’s defense development.
But the case could as easily be made that the Chinese political leadership has an equal interest in ensuring a mixed relationship with Washington, that the government benefits from seemingly endless U.S. criticism of Chinese defense development. This is because such criticism increases Chinese nationalism, distracting the people from the economic troubles Beijing is trying to manage. And this is the heart of the issue: Just how well-coordinated are the military and civilian leadership of China, and how stable is their relationship?
An End to the Chinese Miracle
The Chinese miracle is nearing its natural conclusion, as Beijing begins to face a reality like that seen by Japan, South Korea and the other Asian Tigers that all followed the same growth pattern. How that crisis plays out is fundamentally different depending upon the country: Japan has accepted the shared long-term pain of two decades of malaise; South Korea saw short, sharp, wrenching reforms; Indonesia saw its government collapse. The reliability of the military, the capability of the civilian leadership and the level of acceptance of the population all combine to shape the outcome.
A divide between the military and civilian leadership would mean that China, already facing the social consequences of its economic policies, is facing another significant issue at the same time: the balance of civilian-military relations. However, a carefully coordinated drive to give the appearance of a split may help China convince the United States to ease economic pressure to avoid exacerbating this “split” while also appealing to nationalistic unity at home.
But even small signs of a split now are critical because of the stresses on the system that China will experience when its economic miracle expires in the not-so-distant future. Mao and Deng were both soldiers. Their successors were not. Neither Jiang Zemin nor Hu Jintao has military experience, and incoming President Xi Jinping similarly lacks such training. The rumors from China suggest that the military plans to take advantage of Xi’s lack of experience and use its influence to shape his policies. The leadership transition may provide a chance for the military to gain more influence in an institutional way, allowing it to drive a hard bargain and buy a bigger share of the pie in the fifth generation set-up.
For most of modern China’s history, the military has been an internal force without much appetite for more worldly affairs. That is now changing, appropriately, due to China’s growing global prominence and reliance on the global economy. But that means that a new balance must be found, and China’s senior leadership must both accommodate and balance the military’s perspective and what the military advocates for.
As Chinese leaders deal with a generational transition, expanding international involvement and an increasingly difficult economic balance, the military is coming into its own and making its interests heard more clearly. How this balance plays out will be tremendously significant