Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hu's in charge?

I've been sitting on this post for a while now, but I thought my two cents might be of interest:

The New York Times ran a piece yesterday questioning whether the Politburo of the People's Republic of China had complete control over this month's ASAT test:

The American officials presume that Mr. Hu was generally aware of the missile testing program, but speculate that he may not have known the timing of the test. China’s continuing silence would appear to suggest, at a minimum, that Mr. Hu did not anticipate a strong international reaction, either because he had not fully prepared for the possibility that the test would succeed, or because he did not foresee that American intelligence on it would be shared with allies, or leaked.

In an interview late Friday, Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, raised the possibility that China’s leaders might not have fully known what their military was doing.

I think Mr. Hadley needs a lesson in comparative politics. In some countries around the world, political power is not clearly defined by the national constitution or laws. China, for example, is a corporatist state run by different political cliques that are born from personal relationships, patronage networks and common economic interests. These cliques are constantly jockeying for position within the state (and party, in this case). Needless, performance is a large determinant of the length of a Chinese politician's career.

Excuse the acerbic comment, but I doubt the Chinese premiere would be allowed to blunder into a hornet's nest like Iraq and keep his job for a year, let alone four. I'm also skeptical of Hadley's view because Hu Jintao has a very close relationship with the head of China's Second Artillery Corps. The Corps' current commander, Lieutenant-General Jing Zhiyuan owes both his third star and his position on China's Central Military Commission to Hu. If you want to know more about the dynamics of the current CMC, check out this article in the Asia Times article written just after Hu wrested the commission from his predecessor Jiang Zemin.

The Times article continues and produces an alternative answer to China's silence that is far more likely:

Chinese political and military analysts, who would not speak on the record about an issue the Chinese government still regards as secret, said they considered it unlikely that the army’s Second Artillery forces, in charge of its ballistic missiles, would conduct a test of a sophisticated new weapon without approval from the highest levels.

But they suggested that the test might have been approved in principle, with little advance preparation for the diplomatic fallout in the event it was successful. That entails not just new military worries; the destruction of the weather satellite left debris in space that could damage satellites from other nations.

“It’s the kind of silence that makes you wonder what’s happening inside the country,” said another senior American official who has been monitoring the case. “I’m sure the Chinese leadership knew there were tests under way, in a general sort of way. But they don’t seem to have been prepared for a success, and they clearly had not thought about what they would say to the world.”

I think the unnamed political military analysts may be on to the most likely cause of China's public silence - a failure to coordinate information between the military and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

We are talking about a government whose budget documents are treated like state secrets, so I wouldn't be surprised if the military held the details of their test too close. It is quite possible that Hu and his politburo associates just assumed briefing packages on the test would change hands at the right time and paid the matter no mind.

I can think of two more plausible explanations, although there are plenty of possible explanations:

1) As my recent research into a DF-31 test has shown, the Chinese military isn't known for being forthcoming when it comes to its missile activities. It is possible that they didn't even think of how the test would impact international politics and security relationships.

2) The Chinese military calculated that the damage done by a failed, but publicly announced test would outweigh the impact of international outrage at an successful unannounced test.

Either way, I think Mr. Hu has enough tact and political savvy to know that his government's initial silence and bungled reaction have tarnished their 'peaceful rise' tag line.

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