Chinese military tests fighter jet ahead of Hu's meeting with Gates

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says North Korea will pose a direct threat to the United States within five years if the communist dictatorship isn't reined in. Gates made the comments while visiting with leaders in China. (Jan. 12)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 12:05 AM

BEIJING - With the test of a stealth fighter jet Tuesday, just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Chinese military provided a blunt demonstration of its willingness to challenge both the United States and its own president.

The People's Liberation Army undertook the first test flight of the J-20 aircraft prototype at an airfield in western China, signaling the military's opposition to Gates's trip and to U.S. efforts to improve military connections between the countries.

The flight occurred just a week before Hu is to travel to Washington for a summit with President Obama. It was a clear statement that although Hu might want Gates in China to burnish his legacy as a steward of solid ties with Washington before he steps down next year, the military has a different view.

Making matters worse for Hu, when Gates queried him about the 15-minute flight, it appeared to him that the PLA had kept word of the test from China's president and all other Chinese civilians at the meeting.

"The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test," Gates said Wednesday during a visit to the Great Wall, adding that Hu "assured me it had nothing to do with the visit."

Also on Tuesday, the second day of his week-long trip to Northeast Asia, Gates weighed in on the region's most pressing security issues. He put North Korea on notice that its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs are "becoming a direct threat to the United States" and predicted that North Korea will succeed in developing an ICBM within five years.

Gates, in a first for a senior U.S. official, also gave Pyongyang concrete suggestions about what the United States wants it to do to restart stalled talks over its nuclear weapons program: declare a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula skyrocketed in March when a torpedo attack, attributed to the North, sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and they rose further in November when the North shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians and two soldiers.

North Korea surprised U.S. officials late last year by revealing a well-developed facility for uranium enrichment. But Pyongyang has yet to show that it can mount a nuclear warhead atop a long-range missile, and a missile test in 2006 fizzled after 42 seconds. A subsequent missile test in 2009 was more successful, although it failed to launch a satellite, the stated goal.

Greg Thielmann, a researcher at the Arms Control Association and a former State Department official, said Gates's assessment of North Korea was meant to get China's attention. "He was conveying to the Chinese, 'This is important to us.' "

Rising voice of the PLA

The bizarre drama that Gates - a former U.S. intelligence chief who has dealt with China for decades - witnessed highlights a significant trend in Chinese politics as the fourth handover of power in communist China's 62-year history approaches: the increasingly assertive voice of the People's Liberation Army in the country's foreign policy.

Throughout the past year, the PLA has been a catalyst in a series of national security crises. Chinese fishing vessels have clashed with Japanese and South Korean coast guard cutters near disputed islands in the Western Pacific. PLA officers have engaged in verbal fisticuffs with senior American officials from Singapore to Beijing.

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