China is further along in its development of a new stealth fighter jet than the US had predicted, among other “worrisome” military advances, defence secretary Robert Gates has said.
The US is also nervous about a new Chinese ballistic missile that could theoretically explode an aircraft carrier nearly 2,000 miles out to sea. China has also apparently beaten US estimates to develop that weapon.
“They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk,” Mr Gates said en route to military talks with Chinese leaders. “We have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programmes.”
The US has long known that China wanted to field a stealth jet, but development outpaced US intelligence estimates, Mr Gates said.
China is still years behind US capabilities in radar-evading aircraft and even by 2015 the US would still have far more such aircraft flying than any other nation in the world, Mr Gates said.
China says it does not pose a threat and its military forces are purely for defence – which in its definition includes deterring Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory, from declaring formal independence. In an apparent nod to US calls for more openness, China allowed video and pictures of last week’s runway tests of its prototype stealth fighter to be taken and posted online.
While there was no official comment on the tests of the J-20, photos and video of the plane taxiing on the runway were widely distributed. That was a sign of official approval because government censors routinely remove politically sensitive content.
Mr Gates is trying to coax Chinese military leaders into more regular discussions with the US. A predictable framework for such contacts could help avert the need for some of the capabilities now in development, he said.
The Pentagon is focusing scarcer defence dollars on ways to counter the kinds of weapons China is now building. For example, Mr Gates said recently he wanted to spend more on a new long-range nuclear bomber and updated electronics gear for the US Navy that could throw an incoming missile off course.
He said he had been concerned about the anti-ship missile since he became defence secretary. It is unclear how close the “carrier killer” DF-21 missile is to being usable.