Stealth Test Flight Confirmed

Beijing breaks silence after reports and pictures claim to show China's stealth fighter being tested.

2011.01.11
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china-stealth-305.jpg A leaked online photo that appears to show a prototype of China's first stealth fighter jet.
AFP

China's President Hu Jintao confirmed to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in talks on Tuesday that China has test-flown a stealth fighter jet.

Gates told reporters after the Beijing meeting with Hu that the Chinese leader told him that the test-flight of the advanced Jian-20 stealth fighter jet prototype was not timed to coincide with his visit.

"I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that's where we left it," Gates told reporters.

It was the first official confirmation of the test flight of the J-20, which has been widely discussed on blogs and news sites inside China and could potentially close the military gap between China and the United States.

Reports of the maiden flight appeared in official media ahead of Gates' visit, which is aimed at improving bilateral ties amid growing concern over China's growing military muscle.

Photos appeared online of a fighter plane in flight, along with accounts of the J-20 fighter making a brief flight from an airport in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Newspapers directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party endorsed the mission as "successful," as Gates met with top officials in Beijing in a bid to improve strained military relations.

Civilian leaders unaware?

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hu and other civilian leaders at the meeting with Gates did not appear aware that the J-20 test-flight had happened before the U.S. side pressed them about it.

"When Secretary Gates raised the question of the J-20 test in the meeting with President Hu, it was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed," the official told reporters.

Concern about China's military buildup has been sparked by the possible deployment in 2011 of Beijing's first aircraft carrier and a new anti-ship ballistic missile seen as a threat to U.S. aircraft carriers.

The J-20 flight may indicate that China is developing a viable rival to Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor stealth fighter plane.

However, U.S. Vice Admiral David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, has said deployment of the J-20 may take "years."

Some military analysts have suggested that the flight was a "factory test" and not a comprehensive test by the Chinese air force.

The Hong Kong-based Chinese-language Wen Wei Po, which has close ties with the Chinese government, quoted military strategist Hong Yuan, of the China Energy Fund Committee, as saying that the plane would broaden China's strategic reach.

"The coming into the world of the main force new-type stealth fighter plane is of positive significance to China's national security," the paper quoted Hong as saying.

"The new fighter plane has a combat radius of at least 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), and this means that China's peripheral strategic security zone will also extend to 1,000 kilometers," Hong said.

Missteps

Gates and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie agreed on Monday that stronger military ties are needed to avoid missteps between the two countries.

The visit comes after a cooling of military ties following the sale of a U.S. $6.4-billion U.S. arms package to Taiwan in January 2010, and amid signs that China's military spending will soon rise sharply.

The official newspaper of China's elite Chinese Communist Party school, the Study Times, recently estimated that defense spending would soon rise to take up between 2.6 percent and 2.8 percent of the economy, compared with just 1.5 percent now.

Beijing, which does not make public details of its defense spending, cut off military contacts with Washington in protest at the Taiwan arms deal.

Reported by Luisetta Mudie and news agencies.

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