War Stories

Under the Radar

Don’t worry about China’s new stealth fighter jet.

J-20 Stealth Fighter

Just hours before Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ meeting on Tuesday with President Hu Jintao in Beijing, the Chinese military test-flew its first stealth fighter plane. *

Should we be concerned by this accomplishment? Yes, a little bit. Should we be worried? No, not much.

The Chinese air force had been at work on a twin-engine stealth plane, similar to (or at least modeled on) the U.S. F-22, since the mid-1990s. A prototype was reportedly in development by 2006.

Today’s test flight lasted 15 minutes, a short duration suggesting that someone rushed it into the air to send a fisted message of strength and potential parity to the visiting American, who was about to land for a three-day visit to promote military cooperation between the two nations.

Gates declined to play along, commenting en route to Beijing that while the Chinese had developed stealth technology more quickly than expected, he questioned “just how stealthy” their plane really is.

Hu assured Gates that the timing of the test flight was a coincidence. Gates said he took Hu at his word, but he told reporters that it made him wonder whether China’s political leaders were in charge of their military, adding, “I’ve had concerns about this over time.”

This is the main reason the test flight should prompt at least some concern—a growing uncertainty over the intentions and mind-set of China’s military or some of its factions.

Every year, by congressional mandate, the Pentagon releases an unclassified report on the state of China’s military power. These reports all seem to be cobbled together by two separate committees. One bellows in general terms about the Chinese military’s soaring budget, improved capabilities, and expansive new ambitions. The other enumerates the many ways in which the military remains incapable of performing missions much beyond its coastlines and the Straits of Taiwan.

The most recent report, released in August 2010, to little fanfare, follows the same pattern—with one notable, slightly eyebrow-raising exception.

It begins the same way as always: an impressive-sounding list of the new missiles, planes, and ships the Chinese military is developing, followed by such crucial caveats as these: “China continues to deploy many of its most advanced systems to the military regions … opposite Taiwan.” Or, “As with the [Chinese] navy, it is likely that the Air Force’s primary focus for the coming decade will remain on building the capabilities required to pose a credible military threat to Taiwan and [to] U.S. forces in East Asia, deter Taiwan independence, or influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms.”

Even those weapons and sensors designed to detect and attack adversaries’ ships and planes far beyond the strait, even as far out as the Western Pacific, are “part of its planning for a Taiwan [war] contingency.”

In short, the main purpose has little to do with regional, much less global, expansion.

However, the Pentagon’s latest report does focus more than earlier editions on one area where China has been stepping over its usual line—the South China Sea.

This area—which encompasses the waters off all Southeast Asia, from Taiwan to Brunei, as far out as the Philippines—serves as the sea lanes for half the world’s merchant marine traffic and, more to the point, 80 percent of the crude oil shipped to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

China has recently claimed sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel island groups, which extend across a vast segment of the South China Sea and which are rich in oil and natural gas deposits.

China’s growing demand for energy is well-known. The Pentagon report notes that, while the country currently imports 56 percent of its oil, this figure will climb to 66 percent by 2015 and 80 percent by 2030. Its foreign and economic ministers have set up energy projects in more than 50 countries.

The significant thing, in this context, is a passage in the Chinese military’s 2008 “white paper” that calls on all branches of its armed forces to “integrate efforts to enrich the country and strengthen the military.” This suggests, as the Pentagon report puts it, “a broader role” for the military “in securing China’s strategic interests, including those beyond its territorial boundaries.”

In one sense, there is nothing unusual, or necessarily alarming, about any of this. China is a rising power, industrializing its cities and amassing hard currency at staggering rates. It’s only logical that it would want access to the energy supplies needed to sustain its industrialization—and that it would spend much of its newly gained money on military forces that would protect that access.

And so, we are seeing, according to the Pentagon report, the emergence of a Chinese expeditionary force: three airborne divisions, two amphibious infantry divisions, two marine brigades, and seven special-operations groups, as well as the development of longer-range sensor and communication gear—all of which is well suited to patrolling the South China Sea or conducting offensive operations there.

The military is also completing construction of a base on Hainan Island, in the South China Sea, which will give a mix of planes, ships, and submarines direct access to those sea lanes.

The question is whether China’s leaders see these moves as part of their traditional strategy—to deter adversaries (including the United States) from encroaching on China’s interests and to put up a strong fight against those who do—or as part of a new strategy that’s more threatening and offensive.

Related to this question is the one that Secretary Gates posed in Beijing: Who’s in charge of Chinese military power and policy—the political leaders or the officer corps?

There are two bits of reassuring news in all this. First, China’s assertive statements and moves in this area have driven the neighboring countries—including those somewhat leery of the United States in recent years—into America’s arms. Vietnam now welcomes a strategic partnership with Washington. Even Japan, which only a couple of years ago was ready to kick U.S. forces out of their base in Okinawa, has renewed its trans-Pacific ties in the face of a more powerful China and an unpredictable North Korea.

Second, for all the talk of its new capabilities and potential threats, the Chinese military is still—and will long be—small stuff compared with the U.S. armed forces.

China is finally about to deploy its first aircraft carrier. The United States has 11. (The Pentagon report also notes that China has just started a program to train 50 pilots to fly planes off the carrier and that it will be four years before they can do so while the carrier is at sea.)

More statistics (courtesy of GlobalSecurity.org): China has 38 combat ships, four of them weighing more than 7,500 tons; the United States has 111, of which 79 are in that class. China has one amphibious landing ship; the United States has 24, along with 11 amphibious assault ships. China has six nuclear attack submarines; the United States has 58. China has 1,605 fighter planes; the United States has 3,695.

And back to that stealth plane. That’s China’s only one; the United States has 139.

Nor do numbers convey the full extent of the gap. The excellent Web site DefenseTech.org asked aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia to size up the Chinese stealth plane, known as the J-20, against the U.S. F-35. He listed 11 criteria by which to gauge a modern military aircraft, including not only whether its surface is contoured to make the plane less visible to radar (the essence of stealth) but also its access to multiple sensors and data links, an electronic-warfare system, a powerful engine, sophisticated weapons, and training and doctrine that enable a pilot to take advantage of all these things.

The Chinese plane has one of those features—the curved surface—but none of the others, whereas the U.S. planes have all of them.

Again: It’s worthy of attention, some concern, but not worry.

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Corrections, Jan. 12, 2011: This piece originally stated that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had arrived in China on Tuesday; he arrived on Sunday. (Return to the corrected sentence.) In addition, because of a production error, the original map accompanying this article mislabled Singapore.