Robert Gates is a Very, Very, VERY Smart Man

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 11, 2011

In welcoming Robert Gates to China, the Chinese hoped to put forth a show of power that would impress and awe the United States, by leaking pictures of the first test flight of the new Chinese stealth fighter. The objective of the Chinese was to show that they had arrived as a military power, that they would soon be in a position to challenge American hegemony in Asia, and to ensure that as a consequence of their show of military strength, Chinese concerns would be taken very seriously by the United States, which heretofore has been used to getting its way on a whole host of international issues because of America’s outsized economic and military power.

What the Chinese got instead was a master class in superpower diplomacy, with the Secretary of Defense playing the role of professor.

Consider the following from this story:

China took its latest powerful toy, a new stealth fighter jet, out for its first test spin Tuesday, leading U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to wonder whether the flight was scheduled to coincide with his visit.

“I asked President Hu (Jintao) about it directly,” Gates said at a briefing with reporters in Beijing. “And he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that’s where we left it.”

Obviously, the Chinese were hoping that the leaked pictures of the test flight would be sufficient to set a tone for the meetings that were favorable for the Chinese, and that further commentary on the issue from the Chinese would not be needed. The Secretary was having none of it. He openly and bluntly called out the Chinese, and asked if they were playing games. It goes without saying that the Chinese were never going to answer by saying “why yes, we are,” so they denied using the flight to set the atmospherics for their visit with Secretary Gates–exactly the reply that the Secretary wanted. This confrontation alone helped deflate the mini-propaganda campaign on the part of the Chinese.

Oh, but Gates was not done:

Tuesday’s test flight appeared to be no different in regard to the viral marketing. Videos and pictures have hit the web, some showing crowds of people lined up alongside the airfield gate in southern China, cheering and jumping up and down as the fighter lands.

Gates however, who made the trip to discuss military relations between the United States and China, said he believes the Chinese president’s assurance that the test flight had been previously planned.

“I take President Hu at his word that … the test had nothing to do with my visit,” Gates said.

Any child would know the test had everything to do with Gates’s visit, but by calling the Chinese on the issue, by asking whether the test had been conducted to try to impress Secretary Gates and the American delegation as they visited China, by getting assurances that the Chinese were not involved in any such games, and by pretending to believe those assurances, Secretary Gates effectively rendered the Chinese public relations exercise completely useless. Having pocketed assurances that the Chinese were not trying to send a message to the United States with the test flight, Secretary Gates could proceed as though no message whatsoever was heard. Which of course, was exactly what the Secretary, and the American delegation wanted. The Chinese effort to boost itself up to the level of the United States in advance of the meetings between the two delegations was entirely undermined.

Oh, but Gates was not done. The Secretary’s comments on the actual technical developments behind the Chinese stealth fighter are characterized as follows:

“I think that what we’ve seen is that they may be somewhat further ahead in the development of that aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted,” Gates said. Still, Gates downplayed the technical advancements in the plane, questioning how “stealthy,” or radar evading, it actually is.

This isn’t the first time that Gates has commented on this issue:

In 2009, Gates said that no nation comes close to the United States’ air power, and he expected the Chinese to have only “a handful” of fighters that could challenge the U.S. advanced fleets by 2025.

The Secretary’s comments are something of a teaser; they state a certain conclusion, but the very technical reasons behind that conclusion are not revealed by the story. In order to flush out the reasons behind Gates’s judgment of Chinese stealth capability, one is obliged to cast around a bit. It really doesn’t take much casting around before one finds this post by Greg Scoblete, which leads to this post by David Axe, which tells us the following:

It would make sense for Beijing to invest in a new, stealthy fighter-bomber. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is already reasonably well-equipped with fresh new J-10 and J-11 fighters, rough equivalents of the F-16 and F-15, respectively. But the PLAAF’s main fighter-bomber is the older JH-7, a mediocre performer mostly incapable of launching modern guided weapons — and certainly doomed in the face of modern air defenses.

[. . .]

. . . First, for all its apparent design strengths as a bomber or a fighter, the J-20 seems to rely on imported Russian engines — just as many other Chinese jets do. That gives Russia effective veto power over the J-20’s use in combat. All Moscow has to do is shut down the supply and support of engines to ground the J-20 and indeed most of the PLAAF.

Secondly, there are lots of ways to shoot down or otherwise disable Chinese fighters. Counting just American forces, there are: Air Force F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and (soon) F-35s; Navy and Marine F/A-18s and F-35s; Navy Aegis destroyers and cruisers; and Army surface-to-air missiles. But in a major shooting war, the Navy and Air Force wouldn’t wait for J-20s or other Chinese fighters to even take off. Cruise-missile-armed submarines and bombers would pound Chinese airfields; the Air Forces would take down Chinese satellites and thus blind PLAAF planners; American cyberattackers could disable Beijing’s command networks.

So Gates’s comments expressing a lack of concern over China’s development of stealth fighter technology, and his critiques of Chinese efforts are entirely credible. By hinting that the Chinese are weaker in the air than they would have us believe, and with the justification behind those hints, the Secretary made it clear to Beijing that the United States does not consider China to be a military peer. To be sure, the Chinese are upgrading their military, and to be sure, the United States has taken notice. Future American defense budgets, and future defense policy reviews must take China’s actions into account.

But there is no reason to allow the Chinese to convince us that they possess more power than they actually have. And there is no reason to allow Beijing to puff its chest and strut in an attempt to bluff the United States and the Asia-Pacific region into believing that the Chinese are in any position whatsoever to challenge the United States militarily. The Chinese were hoping to dazzle and intimidate the Secretary of Defense, the American delegation traveling to Beijing, and the United States as a whole, with the test flight. Instead, with smart, subtle statements, and a command of the facts, Robert Gates threw the entire Chinese propaganda effort into chaos.

Oh, and of course, the Secretary was not done. The coup de grâce comes here:

Despite Tuesday’s air show by the Chinese, Gates said he would not revise [his] assessment [of Chinese air power, referenced above] and added that another Asian power, Japan, is considering purchasing its next generation of fighter aircraft.

“And I might have a few suggestions for them,” Gates said.

Having totally screwed with the Chinese military’s public relations department, Gates went ahead and warned the Chinese that the United States would assist Japan–and one can be sure, other Asia-Pacific countries–in balancing against a Chinese military buildup. Something these other countries are entirely interested in, by the way. One can reasonably assume that the Chinese are well aware that Robert Gates is a former intelligence officer of some note, and that he might indeed be able to furnish the Japanese with interesting information as the Japanese seek to enhance their own air force capabilities, including information that the Chinese may have given the United States for free via the test flight of their stealth aircraft.

This is superpower diplomacy at its best. One can only shake one’s head in admiration, in addition to emitting a few chuckles at the expense of the Chinese, who must still be wondering what kind of diplomatic freight train ran over their carefully laid plans for the visit of the American delegation. Thanks to Gates’s skill, the Chinese were deprived of a propaganda victory, the United States prevented China from dictating the terms of talks between Chinese and American delegations, the United States effectively revealed to the world that the Chinese are, at best, only second-rate military competitors, and efforts to balance against Chinese military power have now been advanced, with Gates making it clear to the Chinese that the United States would work to counter Beijing with the cultivation of regional military challengers to keep the Chinese honest. Expect joint military exercises relatively soon between the United States and Japan, and announcements regarding cooperation between the two countries in an effort to bolster the Japanese military.

I am going to miss Robert Gates when he finally decides to hang it up. He has proven himself to be a brilliant strategist and tactician on the global stage, a power player par excellence. President Obama’s speeches may get the huge headlines, but Secretary Gates’s diplomatic efforts and public statements do a great deal to shape the events of the day, and invariably advance American interests by leaps and bounds. When the Secretary does decide to leave–and yes, I hope that somehow, someway, he puts off leaving for another few years (a national security wonk can dream)–one can only hope that he will teach a final master class; to his successor, on how to play the various Great Games that go on in the world as well as Secretary Gates does, and to President Obama, on how to make words really matter on the international stage.

  • Robspe51

    Good portrayal of competent diplomacy. But it makes one long for the days of Bismarck and Talleyrand, when such competence was assumed to be an attribute of every national diplomat. Nowadays we have Hillary Clinton, the execrable George Mitchell and the much-overrated Holbrooke as the norm.

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