TOKYO — Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ talks with Chinese leaders last week rebooted the two nations’ defense relationship, but whether that dialogue will produce substantive security improvements in one of the world’s most tense regions remains to be seen.

Although Gates told reporters his talks were productive, U.S. military officials say the history of the military-to-military relationship with China has been marked by a lack of give-and-take when it comes to sharing information.

Some analysts point to the Chinese military’s decision to test a J-20 stealth fighter during Gates’ visit — apparently without notifying Chinese President Hu Jintao — as a sign that while the military might obey Beijing’s policy in theory, it is independent enough to dictate military reciprocity on its own terms.

“The test was a payback from those who are unhappy about the restart of military-to-military relations,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese foreign ministry official and president of the AOI Foreign Policy Institute, a Tokyo think tank.

Gates told an audience at Tokyo’s Keio University on Friday that the disconnect between China’s civilian and military leaders was a worry, though he said earlier that he believes Hu is clearly in command.

Hu hasn’t publicly acknowledged a disconnect with military officials. Given China’s tight controls on information, it’s unlikely he ever would.

Nevertheless, this isn’t the first time China’s military is believed to have taken bold action without consulting Beijing’s leadership, analysts said.

In 2007, the military shot down an old weather satellite with a ballistic missile, igniting controversy over the militarization of space.

“The United States immediately detected it and criticized China, but the [Chinese] government leaders were apparently unaware of it,” said Masashi Nishihara, retired president of the Japan National Defense Academy and current president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, a Tokyo think tank.

Nishihara also believes that the military acted independently when Chinese helicopters buzzed a Japanese Self Defense Force escort ship near Okinawa in April.

The military’s expanding budget and reputation in the past decade has only emboldened its sense of authority, analysts said.

However, no one is suggesting that the military is contemplating a coup, Miyake said.

U.S. officials believe that despite their concerns about the Chinese military’s penchant for acting on its own, there are a few encouraging signs that point toward a more transparent relationship. For example, Gates was allowed to visit the facilities of the Second Artillery Corps, which controls China’s nuclear missiles. And Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, commander of the Second Artillery Corps, accepted Gates’ invitation to visit the headquarters of the U.S. nuclear arsenal at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

The Defense Authorization Act of 2000 tried to co-opt those wastes of time. The law requires all military exchanges with China to be finely detailed and catalogued in a report, complete with receipts for any expenses over $1,000. Each exchange also requires the defense secretary’s assessment of what each side would gain.

The law probably resulted in fewer exchanges, the military official said.

The United States would prefer military exchanges that clarify the Chinese command structure and prevent incidents like the minor sea skirmishes that have popped up in international Pacific waters in recent years.

However, the only exchange between the two countries during the past two years in mainland China was a Qingdao fleet review in 2009. The parade-like atmosphere didn’t show the United States anything new, Navy officials said at the time.

Analysts say the Chinese military will try to continue their limited exchanges until weapons like the stealth fighter and the anti-ship ballistic missile they’ve been developing become active parts of their forces — and no one is sure how many years that will take.

Miyake said Chinese military leaders “do not want to open up through exchange with the U.S. military because that would reveal that the [People’s Liberation Army] is not as strong as is being seen from outside.”

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