China’s Secret War Games and the Kitty Hawk Affair Flip-Flop

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 22

Large-scale air and naval maneuvers off China’s southeast coast last week demonstrated the post-17th Party Congress leadership’s determination to project hard power in view of escalating tension in the Taiwan Strait. The week-long war games, which coincided with Beijing’s sudden cancellation of the USS Kitty Hawk battle group’s Hong Kong port call, are also meant to convey Beijing’s displeasure with Washington’s recent decision to sell weapons to Taiwan and to honor the Dalai Lama. Moreover, this show of force reflects the commitment of President Hu Jintao, who was re-elected Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the Congress, to speed up the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) already formidable arsenal.

The military drills, which started on November 19, covered a wide swath of the Pacific, including sensitive terrain east of Taiwan and north of the Philippine archipelago. While official PLA media have been reticent about the exercises, Hong Kong papers and military-related websites in China noted that their purpose was to simulate a “pincer attack” on Taiwan as well as a naval blockade. Elite battalions from PLA Air Force (PLAAF) units under the Guangzhou and the Nanjing Military Regions, as well as the East and South China Sea Fleets, were involved. They deployed hardware including Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, Sovremmy-class destroyers and indigenously developed Flying Leopard jet-fighters. Among new weapons tested at the maneuvers were 022 stealth missiles and Russian-made SS-N-27 “Club” anti-ship cruise missiles. (Ming Pao, November 24;, November 24; United Daily News, November 25)

Several hundred commercial flights along China’s southeast coast—the majority of which originated from airports in Shanghai and Guangzhou—were postponed during the exercises. It was not until last Saturday that the East China Civil Aviation Bureau lifted the highly disruptive aviation control (People’s Daily, November 26). Li Jingao, an official of the CAAC East China Air Traffic Management Bureau, claimed: “The delay was resulted from a backlog caused by the control in previous days.” Military analysts noted that PLA authorities did not want the Kitty Hawk battle group—whose 8,000-odd sailors had earlier planned to spend Thanksgiving in Hong Kong—to be in the vicinity. This is despite the fact that during his visit to Beijing earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his hosts made new pledges to boost confidence-building measures, including establishing a military-to-military hotline. On a deeper level, the Kitty Hawk incident reflected Beijing’s anger at Washington’s plan to sell Taiwan a $940 million upgrade to its Patriot II anti-missile shield. Beijing apparently also wanted to protest President Bush’s presence at a Congressional ceremony last month honoring the Dalai Lama, deemed a “splittist,” or leader of Tibet’s pro-independence movement (Washington Post, November 23; Associated Press, November 23).

There are also indications that this stupendous muscle-flexing was targeting more than the usual suspects; for examples Taiwan and the United States. Parts of the exercises took place close to the disputed Paracel Islands, including the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos in the South China Sea, a few islets whose sovereignty are claimed by Vietnam. Last Friday, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry pointed out that the war games were a “violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.” Le Dung, the Ministry’s spokesman, said that “It is not in line with the common perception of senior leaders of the two countries as well as the spirit of the recent meeting between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore” (Vietnamese News Agency, November 23).

A Beijing source close to the Taiwan policy establishment said the CMC and the Communist Party’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs—which was also headed by Hu—were worried about possible “tricks” played by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the pro-independence ruling party in Taiwan, in the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for next March. The source said that Beijing was most worried that the Taiwan army might engineer a “military crisis” with the PLA, which would then serve as a pretext for the DPP administration to postpone the elections or even to impose martial law. Last Sunday, Taiwanese President and DPP Chairman Chen Shui-bian indicated that proclaiming martial law was an option if the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) continues to side-step electoral procedures for the upcoming Legislative Yuan elections (Taipei Times, November 27). While Chen later withdrew his threat, Beijing remained concerned that the DPP leadership might again resort to wild cards given the fact that the KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou has consistently outpolled the DPP’s Frank Hsieh in island-wide surveys.

The Chinese civilian leadership has largely assumed a low profile on the Taiwan issue. In his address to the 17th Congress, President Hu even dangled the possibility of a “peace accord” with Taiwan (China Brief, October 31). Yet the post-17th Congress leadership has been at the same time hedging its soft bet on the KMT by making thorough preparations for what Hu called “military struggles” against pro-independence elements on the island. As outgoing Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan put it earlier this month: “Should Chen Shui-bian be bold enough to concoct major events [in the direction] of independence, we shall take drastic measures to uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity at any cost” (Xinhua News Agency, November 4).

The two most powerful bodies in the polity—the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the CMC—are filled with cadres and generals with long-standing expertise on Taiwan. Three PSC members have served as either governor or party secretary of Fujian, the “frontline province” just opposite Taiwan. They are Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Jia Qinglin, Secretary of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection He Guoqiang, and Fifth-Generation rising star Xi Jinping, the front-ranked secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat. The CMC is replete with Taiwan Strait specialists. This include Defense Minister designate General Liang Guanglie, a veteran commander of war games off the Taiwan coast; the newly promoted Chief of the General Staff, General Chen Bingde, a former commander of the Nanjing Military Region; Air Force Commander General Xu Qiliang, who was once based in Fujian; and Naval Commander Admiral Wu Shengli, a former vice-chief of the East Sea Fleet. Since becoming CMC chief in late 2004, Hu has promoted a large number of alumni of the Nanjing Military Region, which has “jurisdiction” over the Strait.

On a larger-scale, last week’s provocative exercises tally with the overall pattern of power projection that began early this year with the destruction of an old weather satellite by state-of-the-art PLA missiles. The feat, which apparently signaled Beijing’s readiness to join the militarization of space, was followed by the country’s successful effort late last month to put a Chinese-made satellite into the moon’s orbit. Moreover, the PLA has for the past year deviated from its past practice of keeping newly developed weapons under wraps. Semi-official military websites regularly run stories and pictures that showcase the prototypes or just-completed versions of soon-to-be-deployed hardware ranging from the Jin-class submarine—which is capable of carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles—to the nation’s first aircraft carrier.

Apart from telling Taiwan independence forces—and their sympathizers in the United States and Japan—that Beijing has the wherewithal to maintain national unity, Beijing is flexing its military muscle in a fashion befitting an emerging quasi-superpower. Referring to the 17th Congress, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) strategist Hong Yuan pointed out that “the [defense] concerns of the new leadership and the force projection of China’s military have gone way beyond the Taiwan Strait.” Hong sees the coming five years as “a period of rapid development in areas ranging from the PLA’s establishment, institutions and hardware to the extent and means of force projection” (Wen Wei Po, October 19).

Moreover, the display of the country’s new-found achievements in weaponry and aeronautics serves to strengthen internal cohesiveness, a long-standing Communist Party goal. As Premier Wen Jiabao put it on Monday while displaying the first close-up satellite pictures of the moon: the astronautic feat is a “major manifestation of the increase in our comprehensive national strength and the ceaseless enhancement of our innovative ability.” Wen added, “[The project] will have a tremendous significance toward boosting the cohesiveness of the people” (Xinhua News Agency, November 26).

Chinks in the Chinese armor, however, have become apparent in the course of Beijing’s bold display of military prowess. The latest war games have demonstrated poor coordination among the Communist Party, government and military departments. For example, it was not until November 21 that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered its snub to the Kitty Hawk (suggesting the delay may be the result of policy discrepancy); however, the ministry reversed itself a day later by saying that the Chinese had now granted permission to the port call for “humanitarian reasons.” This was in apparent reference to the hundreds of the crew’s family members who had flown into Hong Kong in anticipation of Thanksgiving festivities. The battle group, however, was well on its way back to its Japan home base, and there was no question of it turning back to Hong Kong. The Kitty Hawk affair has cast doubt on China’s ability or sincerity to play the role of a responsible member of the international community.

Most notably, there is the issue of military transparency, which was raised by Secretary Gates during his visit to China. The military drills were not reported by any official Chinese media. There are also indications that the PLA did not alert relevant Chinese government departments, let alone countries in the Asia-Pacific region, of the maneuvers. These developments may also cast a shadow over the Chinese Navy’s first-ever port call on Japan this week. The Shenzhen missile destroyer will be in Japan for four days in what the two countries hope will be a symbolic confirmation of the thaw in bilateral ties (Xinhua News Agency, November 26). The increasing assertiveness of President Hu and his generals, however, could potentially stoke the “China threat” theory, which seems to be gaining credence in countries including Japan, the United States, and ASEAN members that still have territorial disputes with the PRC.