China Stealth Jet Upstages Gates, Hu

 Published: 1/11/2011 6:14:01 PM GMT
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Robert Gates, left, met with China's President Hu in Beijing Tuesday hours after its stealth-jet test flight.

BEIJING—China conducted the first test flight of its stealth fighter just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat down with President Hu Jintao here to mend frayed relations, undermining the meeting and prompting questions over whether China's civilian leadership is fully in control of the increasingly powerful armed forces.

U.S. officials said President Hu appeared not to have heard of the test flight when Mr. Gates asked him about it in their meeting Tuesday, even after pictures and accounts of it had begun appearing online.

The moment had the potential for huge embarrassment for China's top leader—who in theory controls the military as chairman of the Central Military Commission—just as Chinese officials anxiously try to clear a smooth path for Mr. Hu's state visit to Washington next week.

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If the military deliberately kept Mr. Hu in the dark, that would reinforce concerns that hawkish elements in the military are increasingly driving China's foreign policy—including ties with the U.S.—and that they are trying to enhance their power in China's domestic politics ahead of a leadership transition next year.

"It was clear the civilian leadership was uninformed" of the J-20 test, said a senior U.S. defense official after the meeting between Mr. Gates and Mr. Hu.

Pentagon officials said Mr. Gates was greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Hu and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi Tuesday and that the civilian leadership seems warmer to U.S. calls for an in-depth strategic dialogue.

But the more positive tone of Tuesday's meetings was eclipsed by the test flight, which aviation experts say showed that China had now moved on to testing the J-20's flight control software, its engines and its aerodynamics.

Mr. Hu, who is due to step down as party chief in 2012, eventually confirmed to Mr. Gates that the test had taken place and assured him that it was planned and not directed at the U.S., according to the American officials.

Mr. Gates said he accepted Mr. Hu's explanation, but added that he had long-running concerns about civilian control over the Chinese military.

"I have had concerns about this over time," he said. "And frankly, that is one of the reasons I attach importance to a dialogue between the two sides that includes both civilian and military."

Citing diplomatic protocol, the U.S. officials declined to make public further details about how exactly Mr. Hu was informed about the test during the meeting. But television footage showed several uniformed Chinese generals and other senior officers in the room.

China's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the U.S. account of the meeting.

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The J-20, which has been conducting runway tests for the past several weeks, took off from an airstrip at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute just before 1 p.m. local time and flew for about 15 minutes, according to Chinese bloggers. They also posted video and still images of the sleek, dark-gray, twin-engine plane—which looks similar to the U.S. F-22, the world's only fully operational stealth fighter—taking off and in flight in slightly hazy skies over a built-up area surrounding the airfield.

Military aviation experts say the images suggest that China is making faster-than-expected progress in developing a potential rival to the F-22 and the Russian T-50, which made its first test flight last year.

They also say that the People's Liberation Army appears to have wanted the images made public as Internet censors, who routinely delete politically sensitive material, have allowed them to appear.

The episode undercut Mr. Gates's core message about the need for transparency and predictability to build trust between the militaries of the world's lone superpower and its rising Asian rival.

Analysts said it also appeared to be a sharp personal message to Mr. Gates, who took a controversial decision to scrap production of the F-22 stealth fighter in 2009, justifying the move partly by saying that China wouldn't be able to produce a similar aircraft by 2020.

WSJ's Rebecca Blumenstein explains to Simon Constable new photos indicate the possibility that the Chinese military has developed a new stealth fighter jet, confirming fears of a military buildup.

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Chinese website and others carried images Tuesday of what they said was the first flight of China's J-20 stealth fighter.

Civilian control of China's military has been a central tenet of the Chinese Communist Party since even before it took control of China. "Our principle is that the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party," Mao Zedong wrote in a 1938 essay. That principle has held for most of time since the Communists won power in 1949—though in practice there was often little distinction between the party and military, since many of China's leaders had military experience from the civil war.

In recent years, the party has been run by civilians without military backgrounds who have maintained their authority over the military in part through generous annual increases to the defense budget. But after two decades of rapid military modernization, many Western and Chinese analysts say some factions within the military are pushing a hard-line agenda, which is having increasing impact on decision making in Beijing.

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On display at Air Show China in Zuhai late last year: this CIA-style drone with missiles.

Some analysts speculate that nationalist generals are now feeling their power, as they are courted by prospective members of the incoming ruling elite, and are using that to influence foreign policy.

That agenda was apparent in China's more forceful stance last year on territorial disputes in the East and South China seas, and in hawkish public statements from serving generals and other senior officers, which often pre-empted comments from the civilian leadership.

It is not the first time that gaps have appeared between the military and political hierarchies. A lack of communication was also highlighted on Jan. 11, 2007, when China shot down a disused satellite with a missile—and the Foreign Ministry appeared not to have been informed.

Later that year, the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was temporarily denied permission for a long-planned port call in Hong Kong—apparently again without the Foreign Ministry's awareness—an incident that Mr. Gates said afterward also suggested a "disconnect" between the military and civilian sides of the Chinese government.

Over the past week, the Foreign Ministry has appeared out of the loop again, repeatedly sidestepping questions about the J-20 images. It did so again Tuesday in a regular briefing from spokesman Hong Lei.

"As technology develops, and in accordance with the needs of national defense, it is natural for countries to upgrade their weapons equipment," he said.

Mr. Gates arrived in Beijing Sunday on a three-day mission to deepen and stabilize military exchanges that China has repeatedly suspended for political reasons, most recently in January 2010 over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. However, China's military appears to be doing the bare minimum to revive military ties and ensure Mr. Hu's visit goes smoothly, while at the same time showcasing its growing firepower before a domestic and international audience, analysts say.

On Monday, Mr. Gates's Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, rebuffed a U.S. proposal for a clear timetable of deeper strategic defense talks, and made clear that China would suspend military ties again if the U.S. sold more arms to Taiwan.

Mr. Gates said Tuesday that Chinese officials asked for more details on the agenda of the talks and that U.S. officials were drafting more concrete plans on the dialogue. "They are taking the proposal seriously," he said.

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