China offers glimpse of a new stealth fighter

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Ahead of high-profile talks in China by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, there was a high-impact leak. Photos emerged of a second Chinese stealth fighter jet — one that had been rumored but never seen before.

The J31, as analysts call it, shows how fast China is moving.

"There's been a lot of progress over the past decade. And the fact that they can produce stealth fighter prototypes and have two factories producing them in competition with each other is a sign of how far China has come," says Phillip C. Saunders of the National Defense University, who has just written a book on the Chinese airforce.

We've been here before. In January 2011, when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in town, China staged a test flight for its first stealth fighter, the J20. Gates, meanwhile, had lobbied to end production of the U.S. F-22 jet fighters.

"Clearly there is an element here of showmanship and boasting," says Carlo Kopp from the Air Power Australia think tank.

At this point in time, there are no Western production fighter aircraft in the pipeline, or in production at this stage, that would be capable of competing in combat with the J20, or the production aircraft based on the prototype labeled the J31. That is the significance of it.

On Wednesday, more leaked pictures emerged. They show what looks like a ceremony on the deck of China's first aircraft carrier.

Emerging Air And Sea Power

Rumors are swirling that the aircraft carrier could have been commissioned already. The timing is feasible, says one Western diplomat. But it could be a publicity stunt, according to Yu Maochun, a China expert at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"The timing of hyping up this commissioning date right now is actually very good for the Chinese psyche, that is [with] the anniversary of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria," he says. "And also it shows Leon Panetta something China has. So I think it is very symbolic."

Panetta's visit also coincided with massive anti-Japanese demonstrations across China. These were sparked by Japanese moves to buy disputed islands in the East China Sea. But according to Yu, some influential Chinese generals believe the real mastermind for these tensions is the U.S.

The Chinese Xinhua news agency and the People's Daily newspaper gave prominent space to 10 military generals two days ago. Several of them say it is not a good time to fight a war with Japan.

The rationale is that tension between Japan and China is a U.S. plot to keep China tied up in a regional conflict so the U.S. can benefit from all the trouble.

This comes against the backdrop of the U.S. pivot to Asia. Panetta insists rebalancing the U.S. military, with a greater emphasis on Asia and the Pacific, is not an attempt to contain China but an attempt to engage China.

Panetta has been given a red-carpet reception, even meeting the man likely to be China's leader, Xi Jinping. The public talk is all of cooperation and building ties. But Beijing's new military hardware sends a very different message.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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