BEIJING — In a sharp rebuke to U.S. efforts at mending ties with Beijing, the Chinese military staged its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet on Tuesday even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with China's top civilian leadership.
Later in the afternoon, Gates told reporters that he now thinks that North Korea, a nation backed by Beijing, could develop intercontinental ballistic missiles within five years and pose "a direct threat" to America.
Gates traveled to China on Sunday for three days of talks that he had hoped would set the groundwork for a formal strategic dialogue between the countries' militaries. Instead, the trip now appears to be echoing the very tensions and misunderstandings that led China to cut off military exchanges with the United States last January.
The continued difficulties also underscored the many issues that will confront President Barack Obama during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington next week, a trip for which Gates' meetings in Beijing are seen as a precursor.
While Gates said he had thanked Hu for helping to rein in North Korea during a standoff with U.S. ally South Korea last year, his remarks signaled that the United States has grown increasingly concerned about a regime whose only major supporter in the region is China.
"With the North Koreans' continuing development of nuclear weapons, and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States," Gates said at a roundtable with reporters.
He later added: "I don't think it's an immediate threat, but on the other hand I don't think it's a five-year threat."
There's no public evidence that North Korea has developed the sort of nuclear warhead that could be delivered by such missiles. However, the prospect of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles — nuclear or otherwise — would likely transform the American posture toward the North and sharply reduce patience for Beijing's continued calls for more understanding with Pyongyang.
For his part, Hu offered assurances on Tuesday that there was "new progress in exchanges between the two militaries" and urged "the development of China-U.S. relations."
Gates, too, described his talks with Hu and other senior leadership as "a very positive visit" and noted that "this is not an area where I think you will see dramatic breakthroughs or big headlines."
The day's events, though, indicated there was much work to be done with, at the very least, military-to-military communication.
The alleged test of the J-20 stealth fighter was apparently a complete shock to Gates and his traveling party, who had received a tepid reception the day before by the Chinese defense minister.
The flight, lasting less than 20 minutes, represented a significant step forward for China's development of advanced weaponry.
China joined Russia as only the second country outside the United States that is known to have tested a stealth fighter jet, one able to evade radar; the United States' F-22 Raptor is the world's sole fully operational stealth fighter.
Gates told reporters on Tuesday that Hu assured him the timing of the J-20 test the defense secretary's visit was purely coincidental.