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Chinese Stealth Fighter Takes Off Under Obama’s Nose

With President Barack Obama in Beijing for a top-level summit meeting, the Chinese military took the opportunity to showcase its highly touted stealth fighter. At an airshow in Zhuhai, the public got its first glimpse of the jet, the J-31.   Aviation blogs, which have speculated about the plane’s capabilities, have sporadically published images of ...

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

With President Barack Obama in Beijing for a top-level summit meeting, the Chinese military took the opportunity to showcase its highly touted stealth fighter. At an airshow in Zhuhai, the public got its first glimpse of the jet, the J-31.  

Aviation blogs, which have speculated about the plane’s capabilities, have sporadically published images of the J-31 snapped around various Chinese air bases. Tuesday’s demonstration provided the most comprehensive, if still limited, look at the plane. One expert in the audience was fairly underwhelmed. "It looked good but the performance wasn’t very impressive," a German military official told the Financial Times. "There weren’t a lot of high-G maneuvers. But then I don’t think that was the point."

Here, the J-31 can be seen executing some basic maneuvers in a training flight ahead of Tuesday’s main show:

Indeed, Tuesday’s demonstration was if anything a coming-out party for China’s arms exporters. The plane’s designers are using the Zhuhai air show to pitch the J-31 to potential buyers. "It is our dream to break the monopoly that foreign countries have on new-generation jet fighters," Li Yuhai, deputy general manager at Aviation Industry Corporation of China, the J-31’s manufacturer, told reporters. "The J-31 will also be a flagship product for us in the international arms market."

Technical questions continue to dog the J-31, however. Chinese aeronautical engineers have still not perfected the design of high-performance jet engines, forcing the J-31’s manufacturer to use Russian engines. Although the jet shares many design features of a stealth plane, it’s unclear whether they measure up to the radar-evading capabilities of its American counterparts, the F-22 and F-35.

Nonetheless, it’s the F-35 that China has placed in the targets of the J-31, just not in a military sense. The J-31 is supposed to be a low-cost option to the F-35, but when it will be available for export or who will buy it remains unclear. The Pentagon has said that it doesn’t expect the jet to be operational until 2018 — at the earliest — and that the jet is roughly comparable in size to the F-35.

Pakistan and Brazil might want to buy J-31s, but the Russians have their own fifth-generation fighter under production that the Chinese variant may have to compete against. So far, Russian aviation design remains ahead of the Chinese, as evidenced by China’s continued reliance on Russian parts.

From Washington’s perspective, it was probably more interesting to note which stealth jet wasn’t on display at Zhuhai. China has another under production, the larger J-20, which has kept a much lower profile. That plane is believed to be more advanced and is probably being kept in reserve for the exclusive use of the Chinese military.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@EliasGroll

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