China Power

China’s J-20 Statement

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China Power

China’s J-20 Statement

Does the test flight of a stealth fighter during Gates’ China visit show the PLA is undermining the civilian leadership?

Any doubts that initially existed about whether the stealth-looking jet in images that circulated around the internet at the start of this year was real can be laid to rest with the news that the fighter has taken its first test flight.

Amateur footage of the fifth-generation J-20’s flight was uploaded Tuesday, just a few hours after still images of the flight started circulating online. As CNN reported, Chinese military bloggers have stated that the flight lasted anywhere from 18 to 23 minutes, and took place over the airfield at Chengdu’s Aircraft Design Institute.

But there’s a worrying twist to the story. According to a number of media outlets, Chinese President Hu Jintao told visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates that he didn’t know about the test flight.

VOA News reported: ‘(A) US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said when Secretary Gates asked about the test during a meeting with President Hu Tuesday afternoon, "it was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed." President Hu is a civilian, and he is also chairman of the country’s Central Military Commission.

‘Secretary Gates did not mention President Hu’s surprise, but he did talk to reporters of his concerns about a possible disconnect between China’s civilian and military leaders, and the possibility that the Chinese military sometimes acts independently.’

It will have been no accident that ‘amateurs’ were allowed to film the test flight, or that the footage has been able to circulate relatively freely. And the timing in coinciding with Gates’ visit won’t have been a coincidence either. The PLA was clearly determined to flaunt its prowess at a time many had hoped tensions might be cooling now that China has resumed military contacts with the United States after suspending them in a huff after the US announced its latest arms sale to Taiwan last January.

Is this part of the remilitarization of Beijing that Forbes columnist and Diplomat contributor Gordon Chang has written about for us?

I asked Chang for his take on the issue and he was straight to the point:

‘Last week, when the J-20 was being runway tested, just about every Chinese military blogger was saying the plane would be flight tested this week.  So Hu Jintao is either inept or duplicitous when he told Gates he did not know it would be flying today. Neither alternative gives me great comfort.’

You would have imagined that the lesson Beijing might have taken following what was an annus horribilis for Chinese diplomacy and its relations with its neighbours is that muscle-flexing is the last thing that’s going to reassure the region of China’s peaceful intent. And as I’ve written before, China’s insistence in snubbing military contacts with the United States does no one—including China—any good at all. But while the civilian leadership appears to have at least recognised this reality with its invitation to Gates, the PLA seems determined to undermine any such US overtures.

The timing of the test flight was clearly intended to send a message to the United States. Unfortunately for China’s regional diplomacy, it’s one that will have sounded a great deal louder to the neighbours.