BEIJING – China confirmed it held its first test-flight of a stealth fighter jet on Tuesday, a show of muscle during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates aimed at defusing military tensions between the two big powers.
Gates said Chinese President Hu Jintao told him the maiden test-flight of the J-20 fighter jet prototype, which could eventually help narrow the military gap with the United States, was not timed to coincide with his visit.
"I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test," Gates told reporters.
Asked whether he believed that, Gates said: "I take President Hu at his word that the test had nothing to do with my visit."
A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hu and other civilian leaders at the meeting with Gates did not appear aware the J-20 test-flight had happened before the U.S. side pressed them about it.
"When Secretary Gates raised the question of the J-20 test in the meeting with President Hu, it was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed," the official told reporters.
The flight of the J-20 may have been timed to coincide with Gates's visit to signal to Chinese people, including military officers, that Beijing was not bowing in the face of U.S. pressure, said Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing who specialises in China-U.S. relations.
Ardently patriotic Chinese, including some outspoken military officers, have urged the government to press Washington harder over Chinese complaints about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and U.S. military activities in seas and skies near China.
"This is a kind of military transparency and it's also possibly an internal signal," Jin told Reuters.
"Some people may feel that China is looking too weak and this is to show some muscle," he said. "This says, 'We're not weak. We're also developing our own technology."
Beforehand, reports about the test flight of the jet, which could potentially evade detection by foes, in the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu had been widely circulated on Chinese Internet blogs and online news sites.
They showed pictures of a fighter plane in flight and some offered what were cast as running accounts of the J-20 stealth jet fighter taking off after midday for a short flight from an airport in Chengdu.
The website of the Global Times, a popular newspaper owned by the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's main paper, featured a brief report headlined: "J-20 first flight successful".
It published a link to what it said were pictures of the flight.
In recent days, Chinese Web sites and some popular newspapers, which can come under a heavy grip of censorship, have carried many reports and pictures claiming to show the stealth fighter being tested on the ground.
But apart from Hu's remarks to Gates, the government had been silent about the fighter.
The latest pictures may heighten concern about China's military build-up, including possible deployment in 2011 of its first aircraft carrier and a new anti-ship ballistic missile seen as a threat to U.S. aircraft carriers.
Some analysts have said that the J-20 photos suggest that China may be making faster-than-expected progress in developing a rival to Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor, the world's only operational stealth fighter designed to evade detection by radar.
But U.S. Vice Admiral David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, has said deployment of the J-20 is years away.
Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese major general who works for the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, agreed.
"There would have to be at least a thousand flights between the plane's maiden flight and its military deployment," Xu told Reuters. "There's no reason for a hue and cry."