By Daniel Dombey aboard a US military aircraft
Published: January 9 2011 05:36 | Last updated: January 9 2011 12:13
Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said Washington will respond to Beijing’s development of a new stealth aircraft and long range anti-ship missiles, sounding a warning note at the start of a trip to China.
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Speaking before he arrived in Beijing on Sunday night for a visit intended to bolster relations Mr Gates also acknowledged that US intelligence had failed fully to anticipate China’s development of the new J-20 aircraft, photographs of which appeared on the internet last week.
“We knew they were working on a stealth aircraft,” he told press travelling with him. “What we’ve seen is that they may be somewhat further ahead in the development of that stealth aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted.”
Noting that he had been concerned about China’s development of anti-ship missiles “ever since I took this job” he added, referring to both technologies: “They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk and we have to pay attention to them; we have to respond appropriately with our own programmes.”
Mystery surrounds Chinese stealth fighter
When pictures started appearing around Christmas of a previously unknown Chinese fighter jet, they triggered a debate among military enthusiasts and aviation experts around the world, writes Kathrin Hille in Beijing. Did the nose resemble that of the F-22, the American stealth fighter? Was the rear a copy of Northrop Grumman’s Black Widow or did it look more like a MiG?
The photographs and videos give first indications of how far China has come on its first stealth fighter, a programme that it has been working on for more than 10 years. US military officials and defence analysts say it is likely to take another 10 years until the aircraft gains becomes a meaningful threat.
What the test footage shows is that the 611 Institute in Chengdu, the defence technology group leading the project, has managed to build a hull with stealth characteristics, borrowing heavily from US as well as Russian models.
“But they lack a suitable engine,” says Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on Chinese defence technology at the University of California, San Diego. “Judging from the development cycle of their earlier fighter, the J-10, it will be another eight to 10 years until this aircraft can fly.”
He points out that China still lags far behind the US and Russia in both shipbuilding and even more in aviation.
Nevertheless some see the leaked pictures as a message to Robert Gates, the US defence secretary who is visiting China. The US has long called for more transparency from China on its weapons programmes. Now Beijing has granted at least a peek through the fence.
Some US analysts fear China’s development of such technologies may help it displace Washington’s influence in the Pacific, bolster its claims over the South China Sea and make it more difficult for the US to defend Taiwan.
The Pentagon chief’s visit to China – his first for more than three years – is intended to improve the two countries’ military relations, particularly over issues such as missile defence, nuclear policy and cybersecurity, before a trip by Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, to Washington, which starts on January 18.
“My hope is through the strategic dialogue that I’m talking about maybe the need for some of these capabilities is reduced,” Mr Gates said. “A positive, constructive, comprehensive relationship between the US and China is not just in the mutual interest of the two countries: it is in the interest of everybody in the region and I would say across the globe.”
Military ties have repeatedly been cut off by Beijingfollowing US arms sales to Taiwan and Mr Gates acknowledged that serious discussion of policy and strategy had barely begun.
The defence secretary emphasised that even as the Pentagon was cutting back its spending plans by $78bn over five years, it was prioritising dealing with “some of these anti-access programmes” – China’s efforts to impede US access in a possible conflict over Taiwan.
Mr Gates said last week the US would speed up its development of new electronic jammers “to improve the ability to fight and survive in an anti-access environment”.
Military officials also stress development of a new long-range, nuclear-capable bomber, modernised radars for the F15 fighter jet, a launch vehicle to ensure that the US can send satellites into space and new seaborne drone aircraft.
But Mr Gates also sought to put China’s developing capabilities in context, noting that the US would retain an overwhelming advantage in so-called fifth generation aircraft in 2020-2025 and suggesting that there was “some question about just how stealthy” China’s new aircraft was.
Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of US forces in the Pacific recently said China’s anti-ship ballistic missile, which has a range of more than 1,500km, was now operational. But other US officials have played down those claims. Mr Gates also sounded a note of doubt: “IThey are fairly far along but whether it has actually reached initial operational capability or not, I just don’t know,” he said.
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