Rising Power

11.16.14 10:45 AM ET

Beijing's New Stealth Jet: Made in China

The Chinese military has a new stealth jet, but what messages are they sending as it is prepared for active service?

ZHUHAI, China—The toys coming out of China nowadays are amazing.

Laymen build aircraft and submarines in their spare time, and take their creations on trial submersions that earn them fifteen minutes of fame on CCTV and Weibo. They’re bold, they’re scrappy, and they’re certainly impressive. But in the past week, the southeastern port city of Zhuhai saw a different kind of flight. Fighter jets howled and scraped the skies overhead as crowds adored a docked GJ-1 drone that is normally flown remotely by officers of the People’s Liberation Army. Xiaomi smartphones and Samsung Galaxy tablets captured photos of the warplanes in action before the shots were uploaded to Weibo. Few cared about the grounded luxury jets that offered all manner of in-flight comforts—those were meant for the princelings. The crowd was there to see something new, the star of the show: the Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter flown by elite pilots of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

The new stealth fighter is special. It’s a fifth-generation aircraft, meaning it’s as advanced as it can be as of 2014. The J in its name actually stands for Jian—annihilate, eliminate.

Consider China’s rise in the past few decades. An infinite number of pixels have been used to chart the rapid economic growth of the People’s Republic as it played the role of global manufacturer, but very few inches of column space have pointed out that China’s engineers started from scratch. To appropriate contemporary nomenclature, they had to work with shanzhai conditions, but managed to build dams, roads, factories both at home and abroad. Even with the occasional assistance from the USSR, Chinese engineers were largely self-reliant, and careful strategic planning by the central government paired with the massive pool of manpower was what pulled the nation out of a rut. Once the foreign currency started to flow in during the 1980s and 1990s, one of the state’s actions was to push for the development of a robust, cutting-edge aerospace industry, primarily focusing on military applications. Every year, they use the space in Zhuhai to give the public a peek of what they’ve been up to.

It might be a coincidence that the crown jewel of the PLA Air Force had its public debut when world leaders gathered in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. But as Chinese President Xi Jinping took the stage in Beijing to offer the vision of a China-driven “Asia-Pacific Dream,” you can be sure that the central government was sending another message in Zhuhai: This is what we can do now, so we’re claiming our airspace and reclaiming the sea.

That China has domestic stealth fighters is impressive, even though some of its aircraft were likely based on stolen designs of American warplanes. China’s ability to design, build, test, and put into service the J-31 would be illustrious if Chinese aerospace engineers, in fact, did design and build it; but they didn’t, at least not fully. The plane’s design probably wasn’t indigenous, and China still lacks the capability to build its engines. Those in the J-31 are built by Russia, which spent a century perfecting the required technology. No matter how China attempts to make technological leaps, via hacking or other means, stealth engine design is something that they haven’t been able to conquer.

Nonetheless, a battle-ready J-31 could still be a cash cow, and a good way for China to make friends. Two years ago, when a model was showcased at Zhuhai’s air show, Xu Bangnian, an instructor at China’s Air Force Academy, said, “Even if the PLA Navy and Air Force don’t need the J-31, it can still be a popular item on the military aircraft market, because it will be the only low-cost stealth fighter on the market. For nations with smaller defense budgets, this plane is a major attraction.”

Xu was likely referring to Pakistan, which has a history of purchasing aircraft and other military equipment from China, and even jointly developed the JF-17, a lightweight combat aircraft that first saw use in an anti-terrorist operation in South Waziristan. As The National put it when covering Dubai’s air show last year, “China has so far been the strength for the Pakistan defense industry. It continues its support in the modernization plans of Pakistan’s armed forces.”

At home, or perhaps just off its shores, China has its own uses for the J-31. The People’s Republic is currently in territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Conflict surrounding islands claimed by both China and Japan—Diaoyu to the Chinese, Senkaku to the Japanese—frequently leads to scrambled fighter jets. At a time when over half of Chinese believe that military conflict with Japan is nearing, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are taking small but important steps to cool down the conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the two nations’ bloody history.

Even though China is still years behind the US and Russia in terms of aerospace engineering, should the US be worried about the coming years of technological development for the Chinese military? Are the US and China partners or competitors?

The answer is a bit of both. In June, China participated in the world’s largest naval exercises, which were hosted by Washington. Subsequently, China joined the US and Australia for joint military exercises in October. At the same time, the 2014 National Intelligence Strategy, which is issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, states that “China has an interest in a stable East Asia,” which coincides with American interests, but it “remains opaque about its strategic intentions and is of concern due to its military modernization.”

The J-31 is just one manifestation of China’s ambitions. The People’s Republic is already an economic powerhouse, so it is increasing its geopolitical reach by extending its influence in Africa, as well as East and Southeast Asia. The Chinese government says it doesn’t meddle in the affairs of other nations, but when it sells weapons—warplanes, small arms, missiles—to Pakistan, South Sudan, Iran, and many others, they are doing exactly that. The Obama administration’s as yet ineffectual “Pacific pivot” has only spurred the Chinese desire to develop new military technology, and has given rhetorical fuel to the more bellicose faction within the People’s Liberation Army to justify massive resources poured into the development of new firepower.

It’s impossible to gauge essential qualities that determine the success of a fighter jet, like pilot training and deployment capabilities from air shows. But since China’s J-31 and America’s F-35 are the only stealth jets that can be carrier-based, there is a sense of prestige in Zhuhai. Pride shone through the eyes of the air show’s visitors and children toted models of the PLA’s aircraft. As five female pilots of the PLA Air Force took to the sky, a little girl in the crowd said, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”