BEIJING — In a sharp rebuke to U.S. efforts at mending ties with Beijing, the Chinese military reportedly staged its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet Tuesday even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with China’s top civilian leadership.
Later in the afternoon, Gates said that he now thought that North Korea, a nation backed by Beijing, could develop intercontinental ballistic missiles within five years and pose “a direct threat” to America.
Gates had traveled to China for three days of talks that he’d hoped would set the groundwork for a formal strategic dialogue between the countries’ militaries. Instead, the trip appears to be echoing the sorts of tensions that the United States has sought to avoid since China cut off military exchanges last January after American arms sales to Taiwan.
The difficulties underscored the tough issues that President Barack Obama will confront during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington next week, a trip for which Gates’ meetings in Beijing are seen as a precursor.
While Gates said he’d thanked Hu for helping to rein in North Korea during a standoff with U.S. ally South Korea last year, his remarks signaled that the United States has grown increasingly concerned about a regime whose only major supporter in the region is China.
“With the North Koreans' continuing development of nuclear weapons, and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States,” Gates said at a roundtable with reporters.
He later added: “I don’t think it’s an immediate threat, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s a five-year threat.”
There’s no public evidence that North Korea has developed the sort of nuclear warhead that such missiles could deliver. However, the prospect of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear or otherwise, most likely would transform the American posture toward the North and sharply reduce patience for Beijing’s continued calls for more understanding with Pyongyang.
For his part, Hu offered assurances Tuesday that there was “new progress in exchanges between the two militaries” and urged “the development of China-U.S. relations.”
Gates, too, described his talks with Hu and other senior leadership as “a very positive visit” and noted that “this is not an area where I think you will see dramatic breakthroughs or big headlines.”
The day’s events suggested there was much work to be done with military-to-military communication at the very least.
The test of the J-20 stealth fighter was apparently a complete shock to Gates and his traveling party, who’d received a tepid reception the day before by the Chinese defense minister. The flight, which lasted less than 20 minutes, represented a significant step in China’s development of advanced weaponry.
China joined Russia as only the second country outside the United States that's known to have tested a stealth fighter jet, one able to evade radar; the United States’ F-22 Raptor is the world’s sole fully operational stealth fighter.
Gates said Tuesday that Hu had assured him the J-20 test had been long planned and that its timing “had absolutely nothing to do” with the defense secretary’s visit.
Several news agencies traveling with Gates quoted an unnamed senior U.S. defense official as saying that when Gates asked Hu about the J-20 exercise, neither the president nor any other Chinese civilians in the room seemed to have known about it in advance.
But the wide coverage of the event by Chinese blogs and news media raised questions about whether it was really done without the central government's prior knowledge.
Photographs of the J-20 in midair were posted on several Chinese websites, including that of the Global Times, a state-run newspaper that ran headlines declaring “J-20’s first flight successful.” The pictures were accompanied on the Global Times’ blog by a minute-by-minute account of the jet’s runway taxi, flight and then the firecrackers and applause that followed.
Given Beijing’s strict control over Internet content, such a large amount of news about an event that Hu — who holds the title of president, general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the central military commission — hadn't authorized seemed unlikely.
Rory Medcalf, a senior analyst of Asian security affairs, said he saw two possible explanations for the J-20’s appearance Tuesday.
One is that a decision was made at senior levels of the Chinese government to “put a sting in the tail of the Gate’s visit” and send a message to China’s domestic audience that its leaders aren’t making substantial concessions to the United States, said Medcalf, the director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, a research center in Sydney.
Another scenario, he said, is that China’s military was making a statement of displeasure over Gates being invited in the first place. The Chinese Defense Ministry is widely seen as having a more hard-line stance against the West than the Foreign Ministry has.
Despite the potential threats posed by operational North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles or a Chinese stealth fighter, observers cautioned Tuesday that the former doesn't yet exist and the latter is in very early stages.
There are still many unanswered questions about the J-20, said Bradley Perrett, the Asia-Pacific bureau chief for Aviation Week, who’s based in Beijing.
For instance, he said, was the plane that flew Tuesday a prototype, the first in a program that will produce others, or was it just a “technology demonstrator” built to explore and practice new ideas?
Even if it was a prototype of a stealth fighter jet, Perrett said, the J-20 probably wouldn't go into service until the latter half of this decade.
Still, he said, the J-20 makes one thing clear about the U.S. advantage over China when it comes to combat aircraft: “That gap is closing.”
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