Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on a mission to resuscitate moribund military relations with China, will not arrive in Beijing for talks with the nation's top military leaders until Sunday. But at an airfield in Chengdu, a metropolis in the nation's center, China's military leaders have already rolled out a welcome for him.
It is the J-20, a radar-evading jet fighter that has the same two angled tailfins that are the trademark of the Pentagon's own stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor. After years of top-secret development, the jet — China's first stealth plane — was put through what appear to be preliminary, but also very public, tests this week on the runway of the Aviation Design Institute in Chengdu, a site so open that aircraft enthusiasts often gather to snap photos.
Some analysts say the timing is no coincidence. "This is their new policy of deterrence," said Andrei Chang, the Hong Kong editor-in-chief of the Canadian journal Kanwa Defense Weekly, who reported the jet's tests. "They want to show the U.S., show Mr. Gates, their muscle."
The commander of the United States' Pacific Fleet disclosed recently that a long-awaited Chinese anti-ship missile, designed to sink an American aircraft carrier, was nearly operational.
Adm. Robert Willard, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, told a Japanese newspaper last month that China had achieved an "initial operational capability" for the missile.
Navy officials said later that the Chinese had a working design but that it apparently had yet to be tested over water.
The United States currently has no good defense against such a weapon, said Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center think tank in Alexandria, Va., who has tracked China's armed forces for decades.
China watchers disagree about the extent to which the United States should worry about China's steadily increasing military power, which remains well behind American war technology. But there is one emerging consensus: China has closed the capabilities gap enough to pose a threat to U.S. freedom of action in the western Pacific Ocean.
Some analysts believe China wants to end the United States' naval superiority so it can dominate its neighbors, including U.S. allies Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
Skeptics argue that the United States has little to fear militarily from a country that is America's second-largest trading partner and biggest debt holder.
China is the world's second-largest military spender after the United States, though the gap is large. China put its 2010 defense budget at about $78 billion, less than one-fifth of the U.S. spending level of about $530 billion, which doesn't include war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times was used in this report.