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Chinese jet fighter highlights need for dialogue

As far as stealth fighters are concerned, the Chinese prototype J-20 is perhaps too eye-attracting. On Dec. 22, 2010, photos of a taxiing test at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute of the fifth-generation twin-engine fighter aircraft emerged on the Internet and triggered a firestorm in the international media. On Jan. 11, hours before U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, the prototype was taken for a 20-minute test flight.

However, the reason behind the test and the true capabilities of the J-20 are far less clear.

The sooner-than-expected development of the advanced military aircraft apparently took the U.S. by surprise. In 2009, in his push for ending production of the U.S.’s stealth fighter F-22, Gates said that the mainland “is projected to have no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020”. He later corrected his assessment, saying that China might possess a handful of them by that year. Although the exact date for fielding the new fighter is anyone’s guess, a successful test flight in 2011 will likely prove Gates wrong.

However, according to Gates, the U.S. is not the only party caught unaware by the test flight. On Jan. 12, he confirmed accounts by U.S. officials that Hu himself seemed to be unaware of the test flight. “The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test and assured me it had nothing to do with my visit,” Gates said.

The Wall Street Journal observed that the test showed “a brash display of military might that fuelled doubts about the extent of Hu’s authority just a week before his state visit to the U.S.” Major U.S. newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post held similar views.

In an opinion piece, Tu Nien-chung, publisher of Taiwanese newspaper Apple Daily, pointed out that both Gates and Hu might have known more than they appeared to. While announcing a cut in the defence budget earlier this month, Gates highlighted the importance for the U.S. to development high-tech weapons to compete with Chinese stealth fighters in the future. That showed that the defence secretary knew China was successful in developing the J-20, Tu reasoned. He also cited an awards presentation by Hu to a military engine developer in China on Jan. 6 as evidence that the Chinese president has a firm grasp on the pace of the J-20 project. U.S. media, it would appear, may have been fooled by both Gates and Hu, he concluded.

However, Tu did not consider the possibility that the mainstream U.S. media is only playing along in the cross-Pacific ping pong game of intelligence. The scenario of weak civilian leadership over the army in China has long been a rationale for military development in the U.S. In this sense, the J-20 served as the top U.S. salesperson. India is reportedly considering buying U.S. F-35 stealth fighters after the test J-20 flight.

In another observation, Ming Pao, which is regarded by many as one of the most credible and unbiased newspapers in Hong Kong, reported that the J-20 test is the first time in mainland China’s 60-year history that a prototype fighter still in test flight stage has been publicly showcased. While it can be seen as a show of force, the transparency of the test can also be regarded as a sign of goodwill from the mainland to make its military less secretive, the newspaper pointed out.

The degree of difference between media interpretation of the J-20 test shows that without credible intelligence and channels for dialogue, the details regarding the technology in the stealth fighter and the motives behind its test can only be the result of guesswork. Unfortunately, Taiwan does not have the luxury of relying on speculation in a matter as important to its security as the development of the J-20, which, if operational, could pose a serious threat to the island.

Taiwan should keep a close watch on the development of the fighter, as well as other advanced Chinese weapons, through increased efforts to both acquire information on the matter and to establish dialogue with the mainland.

(The China Post, Jan. 18)
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