Home / News / World /  China set to debut fighter jet as US in town for airshow

Hong Kong: China’s Air Force is set to debut its newest fighter jet at an airshow with senior US officers looking on, another effort to showcase its rising military clout in Asia.

The J-31 stealth fighter will give a public demonstration of its capabilities at the Zhuhai Air Show that starts on Tuesday in Guangdong province, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency on 25 October. The airshow coincides with a meeting in Beijing of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, including US President Barack Obama.

Manufactured by the Shenyang subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corp. of China, also known as AVIC, the J-31 is a test of the country’s ability to deliver cutting edge defense technology. Still largely-shrouded in secrecy, the production of the fighter could add heft to China’s sea and air expansion in the region and its pushback against decades of US economic and military dominance.

“It appears to be a fifth-generation fighter and so far of course only the US has been able to produce those," said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “So in a sense, it’s kind of impressive on a superficial level."

Photos of pilots practicing in the J-31 have popped up on Chinese military blogs in recent weeks. The category known as fifth-generation fighters began with the service entry of the F-22 Raptor in 2005, according to IHS Jane’s. Such jets have reduced visibility to infrared sensors and an ability to cruise at supersonic speeds, though little is known about the J-31 beyond reports suggesting they have Russian engines, said Bitzinger.

Military technology

The J-31 is one of two known Chinese next-generation fighters, with the J-20 manufactured by a Chengdu AVIC subsidiary for the People’s Liberation Army. The PLA Air Force will exhibit JH-7A and J-10 fighter jets, the Z-8KA helicopter and the H-6M bomber in Zhuhai, the PLA newspaper cited air force spokesman Shen Jinke as saying on 5 November.

Moves by China to build more of its military hardware itself have raised questions about the risk of it borrowing technology from elsewhere. The country sent a surveillance vessel to Hawaii in July even as its Navy participated for the first time in the world’s largest international naval exercise led by the US, and China boosted its defense budget for this year by 12.2% to 808.2 billion yuan ($132 billion).

“A number of US press reports indicate that since as early as 2007 Chinese cyber operators have repeatedly infiltrated the networks of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s major contractors—Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems—and stolen aspects of its design plans," Larry M. Wortzel, a member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said in a prepared statement to a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in July 2013.

‘Internal reasons’

“Some experts, noting the resemblance between China’s newest stealth fighter, the J-31, and the F-35, have suggested the J-31 was developed using F-35 design plans," Wortzel said.

The Chinese Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment on the technology used.

Fears of technology theft were behind South Korea’s withdrawal from the Zhuhai Air Show, Defence News reported 3 November, citing the South Korean defence ministry.

The Black Eagles, South Korea’s Air Force aerobatic team, cited “internal reasons" on its official website, without elaborating. The Black Eagles fly the T-50 Golden Eagle, jointly developed by Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries.

US Involvement

The US military is taking part at Zhuhai for the first time. Pacific Air Forces chief General Lori Robinson will represent the US Air Force, along with 15 airman and a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, a large military transport aircraft.

“Through participation in airshows like this one, the US demonstrates its commitment to the security of the Asia-Pacific region, promotes equipment interoperability, and displays the flexible combat capabilities of the US military," the US Pacific Command said in an e-mailed statement.

The airshow comes as Obama meets with leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping on the final day of the APEC summit in Beijing. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Xi held their first formal meeting on Monday since Abe took office in December 2012 as their countries seek to repair ties frayed by a dispute over islands in the East China Sea that has seen planes confront each other in the area.

“The Chinese still haven’t really figured what they want out of these air shows," Bitzinger said. While China is seeking to impress with advancements in technology, it doesn’t want to give too much away, he said.

Commercial aircraft

This is in contrast to the Chinese approach toward commercial aircraft. Commercial Aircraft Corp of China Ltd has scheduled press conferences on the opening day to announce deals, according to the Zhuhai Air Show website.

“The company, also known as Comac, is targeting “no fewer than" 30 new orders for its narrow body airplane this year," Dang Tiehong, deputy general manager for sales and marketing, said at the Singapore Airshow on 12 February.

It has about 400 orders from 16 buyers for the 168-seat C919, aiming to complete the full assembly by August 2015 and the first test flight by the end of next year, Yu Zemin, deputy general manager of Comac Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Co., said at a conference in Shanghai in September.

Untested technology

“The ability to break into the international market is of major importance for China’s aerospace industry," Xinhua said in its commentary on Oct. 25. “It is impossible to sustain the development of our defence technology if it is not internationally competitive and unable to tap on global capital markets."

Still, China’s defence technology remains untested in war, and what’s presented at air shows is not indicative of its actual capabilities.

“The thing is that we don’t know that much about the program at this point," said Bitzinger. “The fact that they look like a F-35 doesn’t mean it will function like the F-35, so we have to keep that in mind." Bloomberg

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