BEIJING – China’s military conducted the first flight test of an experimental stealth fighter Tuesday, apparently without informing the country’s civilian leadership in advance and only hours before Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with the Chinese president to discuss improving military ties.
The test flight of the J-20 fighter seemed to represent a snub of Gates from China’s military establishment during his three-day visit to Beijing and to deepen questions about how much control its civilian leadership exercised over the armed forces, which have often taken a harder line on improving relations with the U.S.
When Gates mentioned the test in an afternoon meeting with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, it was clear that neither Hu nor any of the other Chinese civilian officials present were aware it had occurred, according to a senior U.S. Defense Department official.
After confirming the test flight, Hu told Gates that it was not timed to coincide with his visit.
“He said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a preplanned test,” Gates told reporters, “and that’s where we left it.”
U.S. officials refused to speculate about why the test flight occurred when it did.
But the timing of the test flight reinforced the impression among some U.S. officials that some within the Chinese military establishment continued to see the U.S. as more of rival than a potential partner, just as some within the U.S. government view China as a potential military adversary.
The flight at an airfield in Chengdu – in western China’s Sichuan province, more than 1,200 miles from Beijing – received extensive coverage from bloggers, some of whom were posting on news sites controlled by the Chinese government. Normally, comments on sensitive military matters are deleted quickly by censors; the fact that they weren’t suggested that the People’s Liberation Army wanted to show off its capabilities in front of Gates.
Gates spoke to reporters after his meeting with Hu, which included discussion of China ally North Korea, Taiwan and other regional issues. He warned that he believed North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were within five years of developing a ballistic missile that could strike the continental United States.
“North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States,” Gates said.
U.S. officials have long been worried about North Korea’s nuclear and missile development efforts, but their main concern has been that North Korea would share this technology with other countries or terrorists.