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."