China Flexes Its Muscles with Stealth Fighter Test

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Kyodo News / AP

The J-20 prototype, during a test in Chengdu, China

For a stealth fighter, it was a remarkably obvious flight, but perhaps that was the point. On a day when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, China's new stealth fighter took what is believed to be its maiden test flight, according to a defense analyst.

The J-20 prototype took off from an airfield in the southwestern city of Chengdu and flew for about 15 minutes, says Andrei Chang, the Hong Kong–based editor in chief of Kanwa Asian Defense. "This thing is political," Chang says. "They really want to show some muscle to the U.S.A."

In recent weeks, the plane had undergone high-speed taxiing tests, with photographs of the airborne jet posted on several Chinese blogs, the popular Sina Weibo microblog service and the online bulletin boards of state media outlets. There were no signs that censors had demanded the images be removed, indicating that the authorities had approved unofficial coverage of the test.

While en route to Beijing, Gates told reporters that the U.S. had been tracking the development of China's stealth fighter but that the earlier tests had come as something of a surprise. "They may be somewhat further ahead in the development of that aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted," he said.

The aim of Gates' trip was to seek China's help in containing North Korea and to improve the often fraught relationship between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. Beijing cut off exchanges with the U.S. military for much of 2010 after President Barack Obama approved a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan in January. Beijing contends that the democratic island is part of China's territory and should ultimately be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. (The U.S. pledged to continue offering defensive armaments to Taiwan under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.)

The Chinese will also want to patch things up with the U.S. before Hu's state visit to Washington next week. Hu is expected to step down in 2012, and a successful trip to the U.S. is key to cementing his legacy at home.

Gates has long expressed hope that the two nations' militaries could maintain a steady relationship despite their political differences. And while his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, said on Monday that both sides support a "healthy and stable" military relationship, the Taiwan issue remains a clear point of disagreement. "United States arms sales to Taiwan seriously damaged China's core interests, and we do not want to see that happen again," Liang told reporters, signaling that further sales could lead to another break in military ties.

Beyond Taiwan lies the question of China's growing investment in modernizing its military. In addition to the stealth fighter, China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile that could limit the access of U.S. aircraft carriers and other vessels to waters in the western Pacific. Liang sought to play down the capability of the People's Liberation Army. "I firmly believe that in terms of the level of modernization of the PLA, we can by no means call ourselves an advanced military force," he said. "The gap between us and that of advanced countries is at least two to three decades."

The U.S. F-22 is the only stealth fighter now in operation. But the test flight of the J-20, which some analysts had believed was years away, suggests that China's military is catching up more quickly than Liang will admit. That mixed message is deliberate, says defense analyst Chang. "They say that they are far behind the U.S., and then they launch a new stealth fighter," he says. "They want to confuse people. This is their purpose."

Gates maintained that the U.S. will keep its edge in stealth-aircraft development for some time. "In 2020 or 2025 ... there would still be a vast disparity in the number of deployed fifth-generation aircraft that the United States had, compared to anybody else in the world," he told reporters on the flight to Beijing. He added that there were doubts about the Chinese technology and "some question about just how stealthy" its stealth fighter was. On Tuesday at least, the answer seemed to be: not at all.