Fighter test overshadows US-China defence talks

 Published: 1/11/2011 8:31:04 AM GMT
Original Cached

BEIJING (AFP) – A test flight of China's new stealth fighter jet on Tuesday overshadowed a US bid to shore up uneasy military relations, underscoring a growing rivalry between the two powers.

Chinese state media carried images of the purported debut flight of the J-20 warplane just as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with President Hu Jintao -- who heads to Washington next week -- and other officials.

The timing of the flight appeared to be a snub to Washington, following carefully choreographed statements from both governments designed to smooth over tensions that flared over US arms sales to Taiwan and maritime disputes.

The incident illustrated China's might and raised fresh questions about the role of its military, as a senior US defence official said Hu and other top civilian officials apparently were unaware of the flight.

"It was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed (of the test flight)," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, describing the meeting between Hu and Gates.

Gates and other US officials have described the Chinese military as taking a harder line towards Washington than the country's civilian leaders, suggesting the top brass has undermined efforts to improve defence ties.

Asked about his view of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in light of the test run, Gates said: "I've had concerns about this over time."

"It's one of the reasons why I attach importance to a dialogue" on security issues between both countries, he added.

When Gates asked Hu directly about the J-20 test flight during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese president and his aides were clearly caught off-guard, the senior official said.

Gates confirmed to reporters that he had asked about the flight.

Hu "said the tests had nothing to do with my visit," and had been previously scheduled, said Gates, who added he accepted the explanation.

Despite the fighter test, Gates insisted his visit to Beijing, his first since 2007, had been a "positive" step forward but pleaded for patience, saying military ties with China could not be improved overnight.

"I think this is an arena where we have to play the long game," Gates said.

"This is not an area where I think we will see dramatic breakthroughs or big headlines," but he instead ties would strengthen in an "evolutionary" way.

His talks also covered recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, with Gates warning that China's allies in Pyongyang could have intercontinental ballistic missiles within five years.

The regime's missile arsenal and nuclear weapons meant that "North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States and we have to take that into account," he said.

With an increasingly powerful China pushing to assert itself in the Pacific and the Americans vying to retain a dominant role in the region, US officials are anxious to build a dialogue with Beijing to avoid potential crises.

But Gates' appeals over the past four years for a permanent security dialogue have failed to persuade Chinese generals, who resent arms deals with Taiwan and the US naval presence in the South China Sea.

The former CIA director also suggested US and Chinese intelligence services cooperate more closely than the two countries' armed forces do and that the dialogue could serve as a model for military ties.

"I would like to see the military-to-military relationship in the same category," he said.

The Chinese this week supported more military exchanges but said they would study a US proposal for a dialogue focusing on sensitive nuclear, missile defence, space and cyber-weaponry.

China's pursuit of advanced anti-ship missiles worries US officials, who see it as a threat to America's naval reach. But China insists the new weapons are meant for purely defensive purposes.

Gates will get a rare look Wednesday at the command centre that oversees the country's nuclear and missile forces, the Second Artillery Corps in Qinghe, outside of Beijing.

After touring the nuclear command and the Great Wall, he flies to Tokyo Wednesday and to Seoul on Friday, for talks focused on North Korea.


TAG CLOUD Tags Cloud

Get Adobe Flash player

A bird in the hand that's worth bushes of money

Wall St. Loves Chinese IPOs?

The Yuan Trade

Chinese Reverse Merger Crackdown Heats Up

Geithner on China-US Economic Relations