Some of China's military leaders are not completely united with civilian Communist Party leaders, prompting fears among U.S. intelligence analysts last month that Chinese forces were set to take some kind of independent action against Taiwan, Pentagon officials said.
Sensitive intelligence reports obtained by the U.S. over the past several months indicated that military commanders in China thought they had authority to use military forces without first seeking permission from Beijing's leaders, the officials said.
The reports indicated the specific issue for China's military was Taiwan's March 22 nationwide referendum on whether to seek membership in the United Nations under the name Taiwan, rather than the current Republic of China. The measure failed to gain a majority of voters.
However, the officials said, China's military leaders thought that passage of the referendum would be tantamount to a declaration of independence, a red line that Chinese leaders have set as a trigger for the use of force to reunite the island with the mainland.
What alarmed officials were the indications that the action could be taken without first obtaining clearance from civilian leaders in Beijing, specifically Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose authority over the military comes from his party position as chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Three U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups were dispatched to waters near Taiwan in the weeks leading up to the March 22 presidential elections, in part because of the intelligence, the officials said.
One official said the divide is not a "hawks-versus-doves" split but is more complex and appears related to new assertiveness by top military leaders.
Other signs of the split include the military's blocking of the planned November port visit to Hong Kong by the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which had been approved by civilian Chinese officials, and discontinuity on official Chinese responses to the January 2007 anti-satellite weapon test by China.
The apparent divisions have prompted the Bush administration to seek a strategic military dialogue with Beijing, something China so far has not accepted.
Heritage Foundation China specialist John Tkacik said Beijing has used leaks of intelligence in the past to telegraph threats of military action. It is "highly likely that they leaked this intelligence — in connection with direct official warnings in diplomatic channels — to get America to buy in to the idea that Taiwan's pro-independence presidential candidate must be defeated."
Mr. Tkacik said there is "cleavage" within the Chinese Communist Party between those who think the party must focus on social ills, and those who regard a "powerful army" as essential to the "wealth of the nation."
China's military now thinks the country is such a wealthy state and that now the top priority should be on creating a power army, he said.