China’s military upstaged the Asian economic summit in Beijing this week by conducting flights tests of a new stealth jet prototype, as the White House called on Beijing to halt its cyber attacks.
Demonstration flights by the new J-31 fighter jet—China’s second new radar-evading warplane—were a key feature at a major arms show in Zhuhai, located near Macau, on Monday.
The J-31 flights coincided with President Obama’s visit to Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting. In a speech and meetings with Chinese leaders, Obama called on China to curtail cyber theft of trade secrets.
China obtained secrets from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter through cyber attacks against a subcontractor for Lockheed Martin. The technology has shown up in China’s first stealth jet, the J-20, and in the J-31. Both of the jets’ design features and equipment are similar to those of the F-35.
The Chinese warplanes are part of a major buildup of air power by China that includes the two new stealth fighters, development of a new strategic bomber, purchase of Russian Su-35 jets, and development of advanced air defense missile systems. China also is building up its conventional and nuclear missile forces.
Meanwhile, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Beijing Tuesday that the president would press China’s leader Xi Jinping to curb Chinese cyber espionage.
"Cybersecurity, of course, will be an important focus for the president, given some of our concerns related to cybersecurity and the theft of intellectual property," Rhodes said in advance of Obama’s meeting Tuesday with Xi.
Rhodes defended the Justice Department’s May 1 indictment of five Chinese military hackers that prompted Beijing to cut off talks on cyber issues. "When we see things on cyber security where we have Chinese actions that disadvantage U.S. businesses or steal intellectual property, we’re going to be very candid about that," he said.
Obama also was to discuss military exchanges with China that have been put in jeopardy by recent incidents involving threatening Chinese aerial and naval intercepts of U.S. surveillance aircraft and ships in the South China Sea.
"It’s incredibly important that we avoid inadvertent escalation and that we don’t find ourselves having an accidental circumstance lead into something that could precipitate conflict," Rhodes said.
In a speech Monday in Beijing, Obama said he wants China to become a state that "rejects cybertheft of trade secrets for commercial gain."
The J-31 flight testing during the summit highlights the Chinese military’s use of high-level U.S. visits to showcase new weaponry.
Military and defense analysts said China’s development of new warplanes poses a threat to regional stability.
"China is moving along at a very rapid pace in its fighter aircraft development and we should be concerned," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, who said the timing during the president’s visit was similar to the 2011 flight test of the J-20 during a visit by then Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
McInerney said Gates halted production of the most advanced U.S. jet fighter, the F-22, at 187 aircraft that "started us on the unilateral disarmament path that President Obama has America on."
"Neither the J-20 or the J-31 will match the F-22 or F-35 in stealth performance but their successors will and we should be concerned as China is a looming economic and military power," McInerney said. "They enjoy flaunting their power in front of American leaders who have exhibited weakness."
In January 2011, China rolled out the J-20 for the first time during the visit to Beijing by Gates, who wrote in his recent memoir, Duty, that one of his aides called China’s timing for the J-20 disclosure "about as big a ‘fuck you’ as you can get."
Rick Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the J-31 prototype flight at Zhuhai shows a high degree of confidence on the part of the manufacturer, the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation.
"But Shenyang has also displayed a large model of an advanced development of the J-31, that it calls the FC-31," he said. "The FC-31 shows key design refinements intended to increase platform stealth, or to increase radar reflectivity. These include new horizontal stabilizers, reshaped wings, and a revised rear fuselage area."
The new advanced version of the jet also will include an electro-optical targeting device under its nose that is very similar to the F-35 targeting unit.
Fisher said the Chinese appear to intend the J-31 for foreign exports and to compete with foreign sales of the F-35 by offering it at a much lower price.
"The FC-31 gains points for a cleaner low observable configuration than the F-35. What we do not know at this point is how their electronic systems compare. While we might give the edge to the F-35 we also have to consider that China is rapidly developing similarly capable radar, targeting systems, and cockpit systems.
The J-31 also is expected to be launched on future Chinese aircraft carriers that will be equipped with catapult launch.
Fisher said the main challenge for the new jet is its engines, which are Russian-made turbofans. "China is now testing an indigenous turbofan for this fighter, but it is not known when it will be ready," he said.
"But these are small obstacles, especially if Russia will continue to sell Shenyang the engines it requires," Fisher said. "The FC-31 could become a military and a commercial threat to the F-35. Its well past time to be investing in a much better F-35 as well as a successor to the F-22."
Li Yuhai, a general manager with the Aviation Industry of China, parent company of Shenyang Aviation, told the state-run Global Times that the J-31 is comparable to the F-35 and will change the status quo by taking a lead role in the aircraft export market.
"Our fourth generation fighter can now compete with foreign fighters," Li said.
The J-31 was first flight tested in 2012 and has completed at least six aerial tests.
In addition to the J-31, China also showcased a new Y-20 transport aircraft that is a key element of China’s new effort to develop long-range warfighting capabilities. Another aircraft that debuted at Zhuhai was the KJ-2000, a new airborne early warning and control aircraft with technology critical for advanced warfighting.