Tuesday, January 11, 2011

China’s stealth fighter takes to the air

Two days after US defence secretary Robert Gates touched down on the Chinese mainland, China's first stealth fighter has taken to the air on its maiden flight.

The J-20 was unveiled only a few days ago via a story in the People's Daily newspaper [Daily Mail], but today it was reported to have made its first known test flight according to AP [Washington Post].  

China's neighbours will be watching carefully. Aviation experts believe the jet is much larger than similar American or Russian fighters and has been designed to fly long distances. Although China has repeatedly reaffirmed that it is a peaceful nation with no interests in stirring up regional unrest, the fact that China has unveiled a stealth aircraft will unnerve many countries in the region who do not have the ability either to develop or detect such aircraft.

Of particular concern is the hostile behaviour exhibited recently after Chinese fishermen were arrested for ramming a Japanese ship near a disputed island chain in the East Sea last September.

After the US agreed to sell Patriot missiles to Taiwan last year, China publicly tested a missile intercept system in a show of its own strength [Telegraph].

But China insists its military expenditure is one of defence. "Research and development of weapons systems are absolutely not intended for targeting any country, and will not pose a threat to any country in the world," Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie said on state-run television this week. And he told the state run China Daily that "the Sino-US military relationship has new opportunities for development," but at the same time "faces challenges" a possible reference to the US sale of 60 Black Hawk helicopters, 114 advanced Patriot air defense missiles, a pair of Osprey mine-hunting ships as well as dozens of advanced communications systems to longtime Chinese adversary Taiwan [CNN].

The United States have remained somewhat mute over China's growing militarisation these past few days as talks continue between the two nations. However Robert Gates has made one reference to the new stealth fighter saying, during a press conference, that China "may be somewhat further ahead in the development of the aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted."

"They [China] clearly have the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk and we have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs," Gates said.

However while China spends, Gates has been making cuts. While some have been in areas of healthcare [Boston.com] there are some specifically connected to hardware. Citing the need to cut the Defense Department budget, the Defence Secretary has suspended plans to manufacture the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter [JSF], called the F-35B.

China's President Hu Jintao is due to begin a state visit to the US on 19th January. Already President Barack Obama has joined in preparatory talks at the White House between his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. During the meeting, Obama said he was committed to building a bilateral relationship that is "cooperative in nature" a statement very similar to the rhetoric put out by Chinese officials.

There are however difficult issues to discuss. While tensions over military strength are a concern, more pressing for Obama's administration is the continued friction surrounding the value of the Chinese Yuan [WSJ].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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