The U.S. Defense Department spokesman says officials are not concerned about reports of advanced testing of a new Chinese fighter jet.
Pictures of the new jet were published on defense-industry websites in recent days, and were the subject of a front-page story in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. The Journal says experts believe the pictures show an aircraft designed to be "stealthy," or difficult to detect on radar, what is known as a 'fifth generation' fighter. The United States has stealth bombers and a new generation of stealth fighters is in the process of being deployed. China has no such aircraft.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan says officials believe the photos show a "taxi test," a practice run in which the aircraft moves at high speed along a runway but does not takeoff. Experts say such a test is usually the precursor to a flight test, but Colonel Lapan says officials at the Pentagon are not concerned that this represents a new or unexpected threat.
"Our assessment of when China might have an operational fifth generation fighter puts it some point in the future, to close to the end of this decade," Lapan said.
Lapan says China is still having problems perfecting its current fourth generation fighter jet. The Pentagon's annual report on China's military does not mention any fifth generation fighter being in development, but U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have previously referred to its existence. And Colonel Lapan says the new photos do not indicate that the jet is closer to being ready to deploy than U.S. officials had thought.
But the pictures show just one of several Chinese military advances reported in recent weeks, including news that it will soon put to sea an old Soviet aircraft carrier it purchased in 1998.
In addition, in an interview with Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper last week, the top U.S. military officer in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, said a new Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile has reached "initial operational capability." That weapon would be launched from land to the fringes of outer space and descend at a very high speed to hit a ship at sea. It carries a warhead large enough to destroy even the biggest American warships.
These technological advances are the product of decades of double-digit increases in China's defense spending. China expert Dean Cheng at the Brookings Institution says China's military capability far outstrips the old-fashioned, mostly land-based force it had when economic reforms began in the 1980s, but he says it is still no match for U.S. forces.
"This is a very potent force. On the other hand, it is worth recalling that the U.S. Navy confronted at least as dire a set of threats during the Cold War. So, it's a new set of threats. It shouldn't be unexpected. And it's certainly going to be a different shape for the strategic environment in the coming years than it has been the last, say, five to ten," Cheng said.
Cheng says even with the current economic downturn and huge budget deficits, the United States can continue to outpace China's military modernization, if political leaders make it a priority to do so.
The reports on China's new military capabilities come as the country's foreign minister is in Washington preparing for a visit by President Hu Jintao later this month. In addition, Secretary Gates is expected in Beijing next week for the first visit by a U.S. defense secretary in five years.