China’s military for the second time in two years upstaged a visiting U.S. defense secretary by disclosing the first photographs of its second stealth jet under development.
The photographs of a prototype of the new Shenyang J-21 stealth jet appeared on Chinese websites one day before the arrival this week in China of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“China is trying to repeat the Internet-managed power demonstration directed against Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates, during his now famous January 2011 visit to Beijing that was overshadowed by another Chinese stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20,” said Richard Fisher, a Chinese military affairs analyst.
The new photos show a black J-21 prototype. Unlike the first photos of the jet, which were taken on a flatbed truck traveling a Chinese highway several months ago, the airplane in these photos is not covered with camouflage netting.
Fisher said the design of the J-21 suggests that it may be used as an aircraft carrier jet for China’s new carrier, called the Liaoning after the province where it was refurbished.
“Shenyang is already the lead carrier fighter maker for the PLA Navy and the size and twin-wheel nose wheel of the J-21 are indicators it could be developed for carrier use,” Fisher said.
The new jet appears closer in design to the U.S. F-35 jet and likely will be less expensive for the Chinese to produce, he said. It also will be offered for sale abroad sooner than the larger J-20, China’s first advanced fighter.
The new fighter is “another reason why the United States requires new superior fighters, such as an improved version of the Lockheed Martin F-22, or more rapid investment in a sixth generation fighter design,” Fisher said.
Aviation Week specialist Bill Sweetman stated in a blog post that the new stealth jet, which he called the J-31, is probably powered by Russian engines that were imported in large numbers for China’s JF-17 fighter, and that the Chinese will eventually build their own jet engines.
Sweetman, in analyzing the new jet, stated that a side view reveals “the designers have been able to install long weapon bays on the centerline: what will be interesting is how the inlet ducts are routed to optimize internal space.”
“Overall, the most important point is that the J-31 does not look like a competitor for the J-20—but as a complement to it,” he said. “Which, again, might point to the new fighter being a [Joint Strike Fighter] to the J-20's F-22.”
In Beijing Tuesday, Panetta met with China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and told reporters he hopes to expand military relations with China.
The Japanese government recently purchased three islands in the Senkakus that were owned by private Japanese citizens. The move set off in China nationwide anti-Japan protests, some of which turned violent.
China claims the islands as its territory and calls them the Diaoyu islands.
Liang, Associated Press reported, stated during a press conference with Panetta that China hopes for negotiated solution but wants the Tokyo government to “undo its mistakes and come back to the right track of negotiations.
On the growing tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, Panetta said: “With respect to these current tensions, we are urging calm and restraint by all sides, and encourage them to maintain open channels of communication in order to resolve these disputes diplomatically and peacefully.”
"It’s in no country’s interest for this situation to escalate into conflict, which would undermine peace and stability in this very important region,” he said.
Panetta also said China’s military for the first time in 15 years will be invited to the 2014 U.S.-led military exercises in the Pacific called Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC.