Stealth in Beijing

What's the best method for determining Beijing's foreign policy ambitions? Should we try to dissect the manoeuvrings inside the Communist Party in the all-important Congress that began last week, examining the speeches and statements?

That's one method. But here's an alternative approach: we can determine Beijing's plans for the Asian region by examining an aircraft's undercarriage. Let me explain.

A couple of weeks ago, China's Shenyang Aircraft Corporation performed the first flight of China's newest stealth fighter aircraft, unofficially dubbed the J-31. Images of the flight quickly found their way online. For military analysts, there was much to dissect. But ever since the first clear photos of the aircraft emerged in September, one particular detail has intrigued those who analyse China's military-industrial complex, because it has potential implications far beyond the world of aircraft design.

The front landing gear on the J-31 has a twin nosewheel rather than the more typical single nosewheel, which suggests the J-31 might be designed with aircraft carrier operations in mind. Compared to landings on a long runway, landings at sea are heavier, so carrier-based aircraft need more robust landing gear to cope.

It's not definitive proof. A number of modern fighters which operate from land only, including China's own J-10, have a twin nosewheel. Whatever the J-31's ultimate role, the fact that China now has two stealth fighter designs in development (the larger J-20 was unveiled in 2010) is truly impressive. It comes on top of other evidence that China has ambitions to become the premier military power among its regional peers, and a serious threat to US maritime primacy in the Asia Pacific.

In fact, the current wave of Chinese military modernisation, which began when the US military's performance in the 1991 Gulf War shook the PLA out of its Stalinist mindset, has already changed the balance of power in the Asia Pacific. For instance, China's modern submarine fleet, its emerging surface ship force, its huge ballistic missile arsenal and hundreds of modern combat aircraft now make it very difficult to imagine that the US would intervene in a military crisis over Taiwan. It's not that China could defeat US forces in such a conflict; the balance has not yet tilted quite that far. It's just that the costs of victory for the US would now be far higher than in the days before China's modernisation. China could inflict a great deal of pain in such a conflict, probably more than the US would be willing to sustain to defend Taiwan.

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