BEIJING — China’s military conducted a test flight of a new stealth fighter jet Tuesday, overshadowing a high-profile visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates aimed at improving defense ties — and apparently catching China’s civilian leadership off guard.
Staging the test flight of the long-secret J-20 while Gates was in Beijing amounted to an unusually bold show of force by China. But the demonstration also raised questions about the degree of civilian control of the Chinese military, as President Hu Jintao and other civilian leaders gave their U.S. visitors the impression that they were unaware that the test had been conducted only hours before they received Gates for a formal meeting at the Great Hall of the People.
A senior U.S. defense official said that when Gates asked Hu to discuss the test, it was evident to the Americans that the Chinese leader and his top civilian advisers were surprised by the query and were unprepared to answer him. Photos of the flight of the radar-evading J-20 had been prominently posted on unofficial Chinese military websites a few hours before the meeting.
“It was clear the civilian leadership was uninformed,” the official said.
In comments to reporters afterward, Gates said that Hu did acknowledge the test, apparently later in the same meeting, and that he assured Gates that it “had absolutely nothing to do with my visit.”
Asked if he truly believed that, Gates said, “I take President Hu at his word.”
But he said the episode also underscored concerns that the Chinese military might sometimes act independently of the country’s political leadership, a growing worry of U.S. defense officials who say they do not know the real goals of the secretive Chinese armed forces.
“I’ve had concerns about this over time,” Gates said.
Chinese officials provided only a brief summary of the meeting between Gates and Hu and did not address the perception by Pentagon officials that Hu had not been informed of the test.
A Hong Kong-based expert on the Chinese military, Andrei Chang, said in a telephone interview that the Chinese stealth fighter, which has the same two angled tailfins that are the trademark of the Pentagon’s own stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor, flew for about 15 minutes over an airfield in the city of Chengdu. Photos of the jet in flight also appeared on a computer bulletin board run by Global Times, a state-run newspaper known for its hawkish positions.