BEIJING — China’s military conducted a test flight of a new stealth fighter jet on Tuesday, overshadowing a high-profile visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates aimed at improving defense ties — and apparently catching China’s civilian leadership off guard.
Staging the test flight of the long-secret J-20 while Mr. Gates was in Beijing amounted to an unusually bold show of force by China. But the demonstration also raised questions about the degree of civilian control of the Chinese military, as China’s president, Hu Jintao, and other civilian leaders appeared to have no knowledge that the test had been conducted only hours before they received Mr. Gates for a formal meeting at the Great Hall of the People.
A senior American defense official said that Mr. Gates had asked Mr. Hu about the test in the meeting and that it became evident to the Americans that the Chinese president and his top advisors were not prepared to answer him. Photos of the flight of the radar-evading J-20 had been prominently posted on unofficial Chinese military Web sites a few hours before the meeting.
“It was clear the civilian leadership was uninformed,” the official said.
In comments to reporters afterward, Mr. Gates said that Mr. Hu did acknowledge the test, apparently later in the same meeting, and that he assured Mr. Gates that it “had absolutely nothing to do with my visit.”
Asked if he truly believed that, Mr. Gates said “I take President Hu at his word.”
But he said the episode also underscored concerns that the Chinese military may sometimes act independently of the country’s political leadership, a growing worry of American defense officials who say they do not know the real goals of the secretive Chinese armed forces. “I’ve had concerns about this over time,” Mr. Gates said.
A Hong Kong-based expert on the Chinese military, Andrei Chang, said in a telephone interview that the Chinese stealth fighter, which has the same two angled tailfins that are the trademark of the Pentagon’s own stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor, flew for about 15 minutes over an airfield in the southwestern city of Chengdu. Photos of the jet in flight also appeared on a computer bulletin board run by Global Times, a state-run newspaper known for its hawkish positions.
The J-20, a midair-refuelable, missile-capable jet designed to fly far beyond China’s borders, was for years kept in top-secret development by the Chinese. American officials said they saw the test flight as a provocative display of muscle by China’s military but were unsure who the show was meant for – Mr. Gates, Mr. Hu or both.
As China’s No. 1 leader, Mr. Hu chairs the Central Military Commission, the top military body, as well as the Communist Party. But aside from China’s vice president and heir apparent, Xi Jinping, who recently joined the military commission, Mr. Hu is the only civilian official who has authority over the sprawling and increasingly well financed military bureaucracy, and it is not clear to what extent he exercises day-to-day control of military activities.
Some American officials speculated that the test-flight was meant in part as an act of defiance against Mr. Hu, who has ordered the Chinese military to try to smooth over years of rocky relations with the Pentagon. Mr. Gates made the trip here at the invitation of Mr. Hu, who is due to meet with President Obama at the White House next week and by all accounts is eager for his American visit to be a success.
Joseph S. Nye Jr., a Harvard professor and a former assistant secretary of defense who was in Beijing on Tuesday for a conference on U.S.-China relations, said it was not a complete surprise to him that Mr. Hu appeared uninformed of the test flight. “The Chinese military often sets its own agenda on day to day operations without political approval,” he said.
It is not the first time the Chinese military has operated in its own sphere. In 2007, Bush administration officials said they were unable to get the most basic diplomatic response from China after their detection of a successful Chinese missile test to destroy a satellite, and were uncertain whether China’s top leaders, including Mr. Hu, were fully aware of the test before it occurred.
The rapidly modernizing Chinese military, which has increasingly challenged the United States Navy in the waters of the Pacific, first rolled out the plane last week, in what was regarded as a tough-minded welcome to Mr. Gates before he even arrived in the country. Mr. Gates, however, reacted by downplaying the spectacle. In comments to reporters on his plane en route to Beijing he questioned “just how stealthy” the Chinese fighter really is, then said the Pentagon was stepping up investments in a range of weapons, jet fighters and technology in response to the J-20 and other aspects of the Chinese military buildup in the Pacific.
The airborne debut of the J-20 capped a series of recent tests that resembled at times a celebration of the nation’s growing military and technological might.
In a string of demonstrations last week at an aviation center in Chengdu, a central China metropolis, the fighter taxied down a runway on Wednesday, then reappeared on Thursday for another high-speed runway test, almost taking off before parachutes popped out and slowed it to a halt.
That test was watched by a crowd of luminaries ferried to the site in a Boeing 737, according to Mr. Chang. On Friday, two Boeingsful of officials watched another runway test, this time staging a ceremony and snapping pictures of themselves with the test pilot. Yet another large crowd witnessed Tuesday’s first fight, Mr. Chang said.
Such military high-fives must be measured against the long road the J-20 almost certainly must travel. Consider that the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force’s current stealth fighter, was conceived in 1981, took its first test flight in 1990 — and did not enter operational service until 2004, 14 years later.
The Pentagon ordered four F-22 prototypes built to speed F-22 development. As far as is known, the Chinese have built two. Mr. Chang estimated that it could be a decade before China’s stealth plane enters production.
In that sense, the hoopla surrounding the tests — both inside and outside China— suggests that the symbolism of Tuesday’s flight may considerably outweigh its immediate significance.
The test came at a time when Pentagon officials have more forcefully pushed the Chinese military to be less secretive about its intent and its weapons. Chinese military experts noted at the very least the test flight was transparent.
VIA: NEW YORK TIMES
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