ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT – China is farther along in its development of a new stealth fighter jet than the U.S. had predicted, and that plane and other Chinese military advances are worrisome, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday.
The United States is also nervous about a new Chinese ballistic missile that could theoretically explode a U.S. aircraft carrier nearly 2,000 miles out to sea. China has also apparently beaten U.S. estimates to develop that weapon.
"They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk," Gates said en route to military talks with Chinese leaders. "We have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs."
The United States has long known that China wanted to field a stealth jet, but development outpaced U.S. intelligence estimates, Gates said.
China is still years behind U.S. capabilities in radar-evading aircraft, and even by 2015 the United States would still have far more such aircraft flying than any other nation in the world, Gates said.
China says it does not pose a threat and its military forces are purely for defense — which in its definition includes deterring Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory, from declaring formal independence.
In an apparent nod to U.S. calls for more openness, China allowed video and pictures of last week's runway tests of its prototype stealth fighter to be taken and posted online.
While there was no official comment on the tests of the J-20, photos and video of the plane taxiing on the runway were widely distributed. That was a sign of official approval because government censors routinely remove politically sensitive content.
Gates is trying to coax Chinese military leaders into more regular discussions with the U.S. A predictable framework for such contacts could help avert the need for some of the capabilities now in development, Gates said.
The Pentagon is focusing scarcer defense dollars on ways to counter the kinds of weapons China is now building. For example, Gates said recently he wants to spend more on a new long-range nuclear bomber and updated electronics gear for the Navy that could throw an incoming missile off course.
Gates said he has been concerned about the anti-ship missile since he became defense secretary. It's unclear how close the "carrier killer" DF-21 missile is to being usable.
China announced a smaller-than-usual increase last year in its military budget, 7.5 percent, bringing it to $76.3 billion. But actual spending, including money for new weapons and research and development, is believed to be as much as double that. China has the second largest defense budget in the world, trailing only the U.S.
Gates is also visiting South Korea, for brief talks about averting war with the North, as well as Japan, which is alarmed by Chinese military moves.
The China invitation was a coup for Gates, who invited a Chinese counterpart for similar talks and a visit to the U.S. nuclear weapons headquarters in 2009. A reciprocal invitation was expected in 2010, but China withheld it in protest of a planned $6.4 billion arms sale to China's rival, Taiwan.