After Gates' Visit to China, Can We Trust the Chinese?

Chinese President Hu Jintao will be in Washington next week for a summit meeting meant to cap his career as president. It also marks the 40th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China, the visit that opened the door to U.S.-Chinese relations. The summit’s goal is to continue and build on that dialogue to chart a path for going forward.

But, as is usually the case with China, while the surface remains calm, there is a lot going on below the surface; much of it contradictory.

I had the opportunity to interview Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi last week while he was in the U.S. to prepare for the next week's U.S.-Chinese summit. In one of the only press interviews the foreign minister granted, he told me that the relationship between the two countries was strong and on track. He dismissed suggestions that there was any tension between us, and looked forward to U.S.-Chinese cooperation on a range of issues. According to Yang, everything was sweetness and light.

Yet Defense Secretary Gates had a very different experience in his trip to China this week, and it wasn’t pretty. The Chinese military unveiled their new stealth fighter as he arrived, flight tested it as he sat down to meet with the Chinese president, publicly scolded him for America’s routine arms sales to Taiwan and gave him the cold shoulder about reining in North Korea.

Gates claimed the trip was a success, and said the Chinese agreed to new military to military consultations. But Chinese Defense Minister Liang merely said the Chinese would study it, and added the caveat that they would cancel them at any time, especially if we continued to support Taiwan.

Why does this matter to us? It’s no secret that U.S.-Chinese relations have frayed in recent years, as China's economic and military power has grown. We’ve had public and private disagreements over trade, currency, human rights, Iran and North Korea. Which China will we see when it comes to grappling with these issues going forward? Frankly, we don’t know. And frankly, the Chinese may not know either.

According to reports, when Secretary Gates asked President Hu Jintao why they tested the new stealth fighter during his visit, Hu said it was merely a coincidence. But coincidences like that don’t happen in China.

After the meeting, U.S. officials said Chinese civilian leaders had seemed genuinely surprised to learn the military had tested the new stealth fighter just hours before.

But, again, surprises like that don’t happen in tightly controlled China. If the military did this on their own, without civilian authority, it would be a brazen act of insubordination. It would pull back the veil on what many suspect is a growing rift between China’s civilian and military leaders.

Rumors have circulated in the last year or so about such a rift, with the increasingly hawkish military urging China assert its newfound economic prowess and military might in the region, while the civilian leaders have urged caution. Gates affirmed he was concerned about a Chinese military-civilian split, saying he when has “had concerns about this over time.”

China has in the past said it would have a ‘peaceful rise’. It would focus on developing the economy and bringing its people out of poverty, not on controversy abroad. But some in the military have been openly disdainful of the U.S., calling it a fading power and boasting about China’s ‘rise’ -- without much emphasis on ‘peaceful.’ Apparently some Chinese military leaders are disdainful of their civilian masters, few of whom have military experience, and want an increasing role the country’s politics and policies.

Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Monday at 10 a.m. ET on's "DefCon3" already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.