President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates could very likely give the president some insight into what is happening this week in China as the world’s political leaders meet in Beijing, while representatives of the world’s militaries gather in the southeastern city of Zhuhai.
Gates met with military leaders in China in January 2010 for what he believed would be a friendly and necessary dialogue. Close to six months prior to his trip, he had played down the threat of China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet, saying it would not be in Chinese service until the 2020s.
While Gates was in China in 2010, the Chinese regime ran its first test-flight of the J-20.
The defense community perceived this as a message, one not meant for the public, but with a clear and aggressive purpose.
The Chinese regime is again playing the same game. While the attention of the public and the global media is on the 2014 Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting in Beijing, the Chinese regime is hosting an arms show in Zhuhai that has the attention of global military and security leaders.
China’s state-run media is touting a common line that this APEC summit represents a milestone: the APEC meeting heralds a larger Chinese role in global politics. From Xinhua to People’s Daily to China’s Global Times, the Chinese regime is portrayed as a powerful country ready to expand its influence.
While the state-run media portrays China as a peaceful country taking its rightful place in global politics, the United States is described as a troublemaker trying to prevent China from achieving its legitimate goals.
So, as the Chinese regime uses APEC to present an image of global peace and prosperity, it simultaneously uses the Zhuhai Air Show China 2014 to project louder than ever a message of aggression and military power.
“You don’t put that much new stuff on display unless you’re trying to make a huge statement,” said William Triplett, former chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an expert on national security, in a phone interview.
At Zhuhai, the Chinese regime seems to be holding nothing back. It has unveiled more than a dozen cutting-edge weapons systems that could challenge U.S. military dominance, including weapons that defense experts had believed China was far from completing.
Among the new weapons are a supersonic anti-ship missile, new GPS-guided artillery shells, new tactical kill lasers, a new export version of its stealth fighter jet, and its Y-20 heavy freighter, which could help the regime extend its military reach.
“I go to arms shows around the world, and you don’t have that type of splash across the board,” Triplett said. “That doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen that way normally. I’ve been to all these things.”
When viewed in context of China unveiling its J-20 during Gates’s visit in 2010, Triplett said, the Chinese regime’s presenting the new weapons systems all at once while world leaders are at the APEC summit in Beijing sends a very clear message.
“It’s as though we have two realities—or a reality and a phantom,” Triplett said. “The phantom is APEC, and what’s really solid and concrete is Zhuhai.”
Untangling what is real and what is for show requires that the United States wants to know the message being delivered at Zhuhai.
According to Richard Fisher Jr., senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, decoding an event like Zhuhai for the U.S. government can carry a price.
The Navy Times revealed today that a senior U.S. Navy intelligence leader was removed from his position for warning U.S. leaders about a military threat from China. Capt. James Fanell was the director of intelligence and information operations at U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“He was basically told that telling the truth is a mistake,” said Fisher, who noted that the timing of the move is perceived in the military as a sign that China’s pressure can even extend into the U.S. military.
“Fanell is a highly respected analyst,” Fisher said. “His treatment really demonstrates the hazards that any American who is charged with telling the truth about China faces in their career. There are scores of us who have suffered professionally because we have told the truth on China.”
The overall picture is that the Chinese regime is wearing two faces during the APEC meeting now taking place in Beijing—one meant for the public and another meant for the defense community.
“These events are not happenstance,” Fisher said, referring to China unveiling numerous weapons systems during the APEC summit. “They don’t happen by chance.”
“The Chinese regime is quite adept at combining multiple messages to multiple audiences,” he said. “It’s a long-standing part of historical psychological warfare practices.”