U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in Beijing. (Keith Bedford, Bloomberg )
Reporting from Beijing — China's military conducted the first flight test of an experimental stealth fighter Tuesday, apparently without informing the country's civilian leadership in advance and only hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with the Chinese president to discuss ways of improving military ties.
The test flight of the J-20 fighter seemed to represent a snub of Gates by China's military establishment during his three-day visit to Beijing and to deepen questions about how much control the country's civilian leadership exercises over the armed forces, which have often taken a harder line on improving relations with the United States.
When Gates mentioned the test in an afternoon meeting with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, it was clear that neither Hu nor the other Chinese civilian officials present were aware it had occurred, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said.
After confirming the test flight, Hu told Gates that it was not timed to coincide with his visit.
"He said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a preplanned test," Gates told reporters, "and that's where we left it."
Gates added that the civilian leadership "seemed surprised by the test."
U.S. officials refused to speculate about why the test flight occurred when it did. Gates said he "took President Hu at his word."
But the timing of the test flight reinforced the impression among some U.S. officials that some within the Chinese military establishment continue to see the U.S. as more of a rival than a potential partner, just as some within the American government view China as a potential military adversary.
Gates, however, described his talks as a success and said "both the civilian and military leadership seemed determined to carry this relationship forward."
The flight at an airfield in Chengdu — in western China's Sichuan province, more than 900 miles from Beijing — received extensive coverage by bloggers, some of whom were posting on news sites controlled by the Chinese government. Normally, comments on sensitive military matters are deleted quickly by censors; the fact that they weren't this time suggested that the People's Liberation Army wanted to show off its capabilities in front of Gates.
Gates spoke to reporters after his meeting with Hu, which included discussion of Chinese ally North Korea, Taiwan and other regional issues. He warned that he believed North Korea's nuclear and missile programs were within five years of developing a ballistic missile that could strike the continental United States.
"North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States," Gates said.
U.S. officials have long been worried about North Korea's nuclear and missile development efforts, but their main concern has been that Pyongyang would share this technology with other countries or terrorists.
Gates said the development of even a small number of nuclear-armed missiles was something the U.S. could not ignore. He said North Korea needed to take concrete actions, such as announcing a moratorium on missile testing or on nuclear tests, before expecting America and its allies to agree to resume diplomatic contacts.
China's test flight of the J-20 was the latest in a series of Chinese military incidents, including a 2007 anti-satellite missile test and a 2009 confrontation between Chinese vessels and a U.S. warship in the South China Sea, in which civilian leaders in Beijing appeared unaware of or poorly informed about what their armed forces were doing.
The first photographs of the stealth fighter prototype began circulating on Chinese websites around Christmas, and video appeared last week showing it taxiing on a runway. The sudden appearance of the plane surprised defense analysts, who had assumed that the Chinese were some years away from developing a radar-evading aircraft.
"The way they rolled out this stealth aircraft, that got our attention," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
On one defense forum, Feiyang Military, photographs were posted showing crowds — including a few people who had climbed trees to get a better look — watching the flight near the airfield. Commentators gushed over the plane, which has been nicknamed "Black Stockings," Chinese slang for a sexy woman.
"This moment made me cry. Go, China!" read a posting on the Chinese news site 163.com.
Gates concluded his China visit Wednesday with a stop at the headquarters of the 2nd Artillery Corps, which commands China's nuclear missile force, and a brief tour of the Great Wall of China, an hour's drive outside Beijing.
Gates said Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, the corps commander, had accepted an invitation to visit U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska, which controls U.S. nuclear forces.
Gates' next stop is Japan, where talks with officials are expected to focus on North Korea.
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.