China confirmed it held its first test-flight of the J-20 stealth fighter jet on Tuesday, a show of muscle during a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that sought to defuse military tensions between the two powers.
The flight came against a backdrop of a massive Chinese military modernisation programme. China’s plans to develop aircraft carriers, anti-satellite missiles and other advanced systems have alarmed neighbouring countries and Washington.
“China is showing off that its defences have been strengthened to a high level,” said Ahn Yinhay, a professor at Korea University in Seoul.
“The US has been questioning whether China is targeting the US, to which China is replying implicitly and explicitly that it is fully equipped with high-tech weapons.”
US and Chinese defence-related ships have jostled in seas near China in past years, and in 2001 a mid-air collision between a US surveillance plane and a Chinese air force fighter erupted into a diplomatic standoff.
China has always said its military modernisation is needed to protect the country’s development and interests, to maintain regional stability as well as to upgrade sometimes woefully outdated equipment.
“The People’s Liberation Army has no ability and even more than that, has no intention to challenge America’s territory and global military advantage, and does not have any aims to pursue military hegemony in the region,” wrote an unnamed rear-admiral from a top Chinese defence think tank in a commentary for the overseas edition of the People’s Daily. The rear-admiral said the Pacific Ocean was “big enough” to “be able to accommodate the development and actions from both US. and China military forces”.
News of the stealth fighter’s maiden flight caused national pride to swell in China.
State radio said some Chinese “shed tears of joy” on the news, while online message boards and blogs brimmed with comments praising the aircraft.
Popular tabloid the Global Times, run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, said there was even greater meaning to the fighter than military prowess.
“What China needs is more job opportunities and cheaper housing. The significance of the J-20 lies in its capability to create a secure environment for China so it can devote its wisdom and energy to solving domestic problems,” it said in an editorial.