US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was at the Shangri-La Dialogue (aka the Asia Security Summit), and according to The Washington Post, he has engaged in sharp exchanges with the Chinese participants. Who was Gates’ interlocutor at Shangri-La? None other than People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Major General Zhu Chenghu, who bluntly stated that “You, the Americans, are taking China as the enemy.”

What is striking is that General Zhu is the same officer who, in 2005, broached the idea that China’s nuclear “no first use” policy might not apply if China was attacked with conventional weapons.

At the time, this statement, suggesting that China’s “no first use” policy was not quite as absolute as so often presented, aroused quite a bit of reaction. American arms control experts rushed to take comfort from Chinese statements that Zhu was speaking only from a personal perspective, and that his views were not representative. Others noted that Zhu was supposedly reprimanded—surely his position did not receive official support?

Except that Zhu was subsequently appointed to head the Defense Affairs Institute (fangwu xueyuan) at the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU). The PLA’s NDU is the equivalent of a military region in protocol, with precedence ahead of the actual military regions. More to the point, he is now attending the Shangri-La Asia Security Summit, representing the PRC.

One might draw two possible conclusions from this. The first is that the PRC military leadership somehow is operating independent of the Chinese political leadership, and the dispatch of Zhu was somehow arranged without the approval or understanding of China’s top civilians. This seems to be what Secretary of Defense Gates was implying in earlier press reports.

Unfortunately, the far better bet is that Beijing knows exactly what it was doing. In which case, Secretary Gates is seriously misreading the message that China is sending—China’s leadership, both military and civilian, are not interested in deepening military-to-military relations unless the US abandons its commitment to Taiwan.