Robert Gates on China

January 22, 2014
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates wrote a new book on his tenure under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Most of the reporting focuses on his opinions of the two presidents. But one of the more interesting revelations in the book is how this long-serving leader in the U.S. defense and intelligence communities views his counterparts in China.

Dr. Gates, who earned his doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown in 1974, first traveled to China in 1980 with CIA Director Stansfield Turner to implement an agreement on technical intelligence cooperation negotiated by President Carter and Deng Xiaoping. The purpose of the agreement was to replace CIA radar sites in northern Iran lost after the 1979 revolution. Gates did not return to China until 2007 during his tenure as Secretary of Defense. In his memoir Gates, who rose through the ranks to eventually become the director of the CIA before his appointment as Secretary of Defense, said he went to China with the hope that he could establish “something similar” to the “extraordinary relationship” embodied in the radar agreement with China, which “continued uninterrupted over the decades through the ups and downs in the two nations’ political relationship.”

Unfortunately, Secretary Gates harbored suspicions about his counterparts that undermined his hopes. He wrote “China always prefers to deal with each country individually” because they are “easier to intimidate that way.”  He saw blog posts about a test of a new Chinese fighter plane that appeared on-line during his official visit as a “politically portentous stunt” the PLA aimed at him. He concluded that China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 was conducted by the Chinese military without the knowledge of China’s senior leadership. And he referred to PLA General Ma Xiaotian, who is now the Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, as a “handler of the barbarians” whose job was to present the appearance of an official military to military dialog that Gates believed the PLA was “leery” to conduct in earnest.

One of the most important topics Gates wanted to discuss with China was nuclear strategy. Although President Bush and President Hu agreed to start a nuclear dialog when they met in April 2006, Gates claimed “it was pretty plain that the People’s Liberation Army hadn’t received the memo.” He believed the PLA was dragging its feet, in defiance of China’s political leaders. But Gates also seemed unaware of Chinese views on nuclear weapons. In commenting on President Obama’s pledge to commit the United States to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, Gates wrote:

“Obama was the fourth president I had worked for who said outright that he wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons (Carter, Reagan and Bush 41 were the others). Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former defense secretary Bill Perry, and former senator Sam Nunn had also called for “going to zero.” The only problem, in my view, was that I hadn’t heard the leaders of any other nuclear country—Britain, France, Russia, China, India or Pakistan—signal the same intent.”

China first called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons on the occasion of its first nuclear test in October 1964. It is a statement of intent Chinese leaders and officials have repeated regularly for decades.

One reason the U.S.—China nuclear dialog fails to advance is an interminable argument over the commitment to no first use. China wants the U.S. to promise, as China has, to never use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances. The U.S. sees the Chinese pledge as meaningless, just as Secretary Gates apparently sees China’s long-standing official commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons as meaningless.

Secretary Gates’ interest in establishing a meaningful dialog with his Chinese counterparts is reassuring. He does not provide enough information or context in the book to assess whether his suspicions of the motives and behavior of his PLA counterparts are justified, but his frank account of his interactions with them are an instructive indication that the U.S. strategic dialog with China is not as productive as the official press releases would lead us to believe.