Asia
5:12 pm
Wed September 19, 2012

China Offers Glimpse Of A New Stealth Fighter

Originally published on Thu September 20, 2012 8:27 am

Ahead of high-profile talks in China by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, there was a high-impact leak. Photos emerged of a second Chinese stealth fighter jet — one that had been rumored but never seen before.

The J31, as analysts call it, shows how fast China is moving.

"There's been a lot of progress over the past decade. And the fact that they can produce stealth fighter prototypes and have two factories producing them in competition with each other is a sign of how far China has come," says Phillip C. Saunders of the National Defense University, who has just written a book on the Chinese airforce.

We've been here before. In January 2011, when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in town, China staged a test flight for its first stealth fighter, the J20. Gates, meanwhile, had lobbied to end production of the U.S. F-22 jet fighters.

"Clearly there is an element here of showmanship and boasting," says Carlo Kopp from the Air Power Australia think tank.

"Nearly always these disclosures are carefully timed to reinforce some political point," said Kopp. "One could presume from the basis of the timing that this was meant to demonstrate to the domestic audience that China is very active in developing advance weapons systems."

On Wednesday, more leaked pictures emerged. They show what looks like a ceremony on the deck of China's first aircraft carrier.

Emerging Air And Sea Power

Rumors are swirling that the aircraft carrier could have been commissioned already. The timing is feasible, says one Western diplomat. But it could be a publicity stunt, according to Yu Maochun, a China expert at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"The timing of hyping up this commissioning date right now is actually very good for the Chinese psyche, that is [with] the anniversary of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria," he says. "And also it shows Leon Panetta something China has. So I think it is very symbolic."

Panetta's visit also coincided with massive anti-Japanese demonstrations across China. These were sparked by Japanese moves to buy disputed islands in the East China Sea. But according to Yu, some influential Chinese generals believe the real mastermind for these tensions is the U.S.

The Chinese Xinhua news agency and the People's Daily newspaper gave prominent space to 10 military generals two days ago. Several of them say it is not a good time to fight a war with Japan.

The rationale is that tension between Japan and China is a U.S. plot to keep China tied up in a regional conflict so the U.S. can benefit from all the trouble.

This comes against the backdrop of the U.S. pivot to Asia. Panetta insists rebalancing the U.S. military, with a greater emphasis on Asia and the Pacific, is not an attempt to contain China but an attempt to engage China.

Panetta has been given a red-carpet reception, even meeting the man likely to be China's leader, Xi Jinping. The public talk is all of cooperation and building ties. But Beijing's new military hardware sends a very different message.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is visiting China, but that's not the big news there. Just ahead of his visit, pictures appeared on the Internet of a new stealth fighter, the second one China has built. The jet won't be operational for years, and there's not much known about its capabilities. But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, the timing of the pictures is significant.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: The J31, as analysts call it, shows just how fast China's moving. Phillip C. Saunders at the National Defense University has just written a book on the Chinese air force.

PHILLIP C. SAUNDERS: There's been a lot of progress over the last decade. And the fact that they can produce stealth fighter prototypes and have two factories that are producing them in competition with each other is a sign of how far China has come.

LIM: We've been here before. In January last year, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in town, China chose to flight-test its first stealth fighter. This was seen as embarrassing for Gates, who'd previously lobbied to end production of the U.S. F-22 jet fighters. Once again, the speed of China's military development has put the U.S. on the defensive.

CARLO KOPP: Clearly, there is an element here of showmanship and boasting.

LIM: That's Carlo Kopp from the Air Power Australia think tank.

KOPP: Nearly always, these disclosures are carefully timed to reinforce some political point. One could presume on the basis of the timing that it was meant to possibly demonstrate to the Chinese domestic audience that China is very active in developing advanced weapon systems.

LIM: Today, yet more leaked pictures emerged. They show what looks like a ceremony on the deck of China's first aircraft carrier. Rumors are swirling that the aircraft carrier could have been commissioned. The timing is feasible, says one Western diplomat, but it could be a publicity stunt, according to Yu Maochun, a China expert at the U.S. Naval Academy.

YU MAOCHUN: The timing of hyping up this commissioning date right now is actually very good for the Chinese psyche that is the anniversary of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria. And also, it shows Leon Panetta something China is really having. So I think it's very symbolic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

LIM: The visit also coincided with massive anti-Japanese demonstrations across China. These were sparked by Japanese moves to buy disputed islands in the East China Sea. But according to Yu, some influential Chinese generals believe the U.S. is behind these tensions.

MAOCHUN: The Chinese Xinhua and the People's Daily gave prominent space to 10 military generals two days ago. Several of them say it is probably not really a good time to fight a war with Japan right now. The rationale behind that is the whole tension between China and Japan right now is a United States plot to keep China buried in a regional conflict with Japan, so U.S. can benefit from all this trouble.

LIM: This comes against the backdrop of the U.S. pivot to Asia. Panetta insists that rebalancing is not an attempt to contain China but an attempt to engage China. He's been given a red-carpet reception, even meeting the man likely to be China's next leader. The public talk is all of cooperation and building ties, but Beijing's new military hardware sends a very different message. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.