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Beijing displays its military might with J-31 stealth fighter

BEIJING — China unveiled a sophisticated new stealth fighter jet at an air show yesterday, a display of muscle during United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing.

Beijing displays its military might with J-31 stealth fighter

China hopes the J-31 will show how far it has come on the global arms market. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING — China unveiled a sophisticated new stealth fighter jet at an air show yesterday, a display of muscle during United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing.

China hopes the much-anticipated J-31 stealth aircraft, developed by the Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), the country’s top aircraft maker, will compete with US-made hardware in export markets.

The twin-engine fighter jet was unveiled at the Airshow China in the southern city of Zhuhai, a biennial event at which China shows off its military technology. As Beijing tries to climb into the high-end arms market, it has been eager to display fighters, missiles and drones it hopes will demonstrate how it can compete on the global stage.

A demonstration flight was conducted for the J-31 but it was not put on display afterwards, although a mock-up version was on show.

An AVIC spokesman declined to comment on any orders for the aircraft. “We were told not to do any promotion for the plane,” said the spokesman, Mr Fu Mingyao. He did not elaborate. There are slated to be at least two more J-31 demonstrations at the show, AVIC officials said.

By exhibiting a stealth aircraft at the show, China wants to show just how far its arms industry has come, experts say. The US is the only country with operational stealth planes and Lockheed Martin the only company to have successfully exported one, the F-35.

After scrutinising online videos and squinting at oblique references in Chinese state news media, foreign experts say there are many open questions regarding the J-31’s development: How soon the plane will be in service, whether it will use engines that are domestically made or imported from Russia, whether its capabilities will be a match for Lockheed Martin’s jets and whether it will be substantially cheaper than the competition.

It is also unclear whether the introduction of the J-31 at the show will bolster significantly China’s clout in the global arms trade. It is not even certain that the jet is meant for export. Another stealth fighter, the J-20, is being developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group.

“It appears to be a fifth-generation fighter and so far, of course, only the US has been able to produce those,” said Dr Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, of the J-31. “So, in a sense, it’s kind of impressive on a superficial level.”

Dr Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, said engine designs had hindered Chinese aerospace ambitions. “The problem with Chinese engines is that they’ve been remarkably unreliable,” he said.

Quality control, in general, could undermine the J-31’s biggest apparent selling point — its ability to evade radar. “The potential problem with Chinese- and Russian-construction stealth fighters is that if there’s a bolt out of place, it shows up on a radar signature,” Dr Farley said. “Russian and Chinese construction are typically much looser.

“Will Chinese fighters be as ‘stealthy’ as Western fighters? We won’t know that for another five or 10 years,” he added.

If China’s fighters perform as advertised, Dr Farley said, the J-31 will attract buyers — but only if it is marketed well below the F-35’s price tag, which ranges from about US$150 million (S$194 million) to more than US$300 million, depending on the model.

Development costs for the J-31 are completely hidden, but the journal Science noted that about 45 per cent of the Chinese government’s research and development spending is not accounted for and probably allocated to defence. AGENCIES

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