Closing the Gap: China’s New Stealth Fighter

China has made no secret of its aspirations to rise above its current status in the international system. Over the past decade, China has begun investing heavily in modernising its naval and air forces, including the recent launch of an aircraft carrier that has just had its first successful fighter landing.[1] In spite of these promising signs, however, China still faces an overwhelmingly hostile environment that will preclude any immediate possibility of expansion. To begin with, China remains locked in tense disputes with many of its neighbors, including Vietnam, India, and Japan, none of whom wish to see Chinese power expand any further than it already has. Furthermore, the United States has continually demonstrated that it views China’s recent moves as hostile and has correspondingly ramped up its military deployments, as well as its diplomatic efforts, in the Pacific.[2] Given this environment of hostile neighbours and an increasingly reactionary superpower, combined with China’s relative lack of allies, it is currently difficult to envision a situation where China could substantially expand its influence without jeopardising its own security.

Image courtesy of US Air Force, public domain.

 Enter the Shenyang J-31, China’s newest stealth fighter prototype and, perhaps, its best chance of escaping from its current encirclement. While not China’s first stealth fighter project (the first was the Chengdu J-20), the J-31 represents a significant development in Chinese stealth technology. The J-20, while an important milestone in Chinese aviation technology, was also a somewhat underwhelming aircraft, more reminiscent of a prototype ground attack aircraft and less like a feasible stealth fighter that could be put into production.[3] The J-31 by contrast seems like a much more plausible design. Visually (and possibly technologically) derivative of the American F-22 and F-35, the J-31 is a smaller, more capable fighter that can potentially fulfill every role a conventional fighter can, as well as perhaps remain hidden from radar in a way that only American pilots could previously enjoy. In addition, the J-31 is speculated to be capable of operating from aircraft carriers, fuelling further suspicions about China’s long-term maritime ambitions.[4]

 Even accounting for the enormous technical challenge that accompany stealth designs – challenges that have flustered even the Americans – the potential effect on China’s current standing in Asia could be decisive. The successful deployment of a capable stealth fighter into China’s air forces could potentially render the existing conventional air forces of its neighbours obsolete. Suddenly, recent purchases of conventional fighters by countries like India and South Korea, along with Taiwan’s recent upgrade of its air defense systems could be made irrelevant if China were to develop planes that could simply bypass those defenses. Though it is likely that American-designed fighters would retain their technological preeminence, a Chinese stealth fighter would, regardless, demonstrate that the American monopoly on what was once the most rarefied of its advantages had been breached and that, in turn, could change the calculations of the region.

 As it stands, the United States has been reluctant to share the fruits of its own stealth technology. Though it has agreed to sell its F-35’s to Australia and Japan, America has otherwise been cautious about taking those sales any further. Thus far, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have yet to order F-35’s and in Taiwan’s case, America has refused to sell even conventional fighter aircraft.[5] Combining this reluctance to share stealth technology with the F-35’s famously prohibitive cost, it is likely that many Asian countries will simply not acquire stealth aircrafts from the United States. In the seascape that is the Asia-Pacific, this potential for a “fighter gap” could prove crucial and may in turn offer an opportunity for China to build a broader coalition.

It is in that context that China’s development of the J-31 holds so much potential. The plane may prove to be ludicrously outgunned by its American counterparts if it enters production, but so long as it enters production, that may not matter. If China can build a competent stealth fighter that can at least compete with America’s offerings in terms of price, then it may give China the springboard it needs to finally build some sustainable alliances. If America continues to refuse to support Taiwan’s fighter force, the resulting capability gap could be the necessary impetus to at least achieve closer ties between the two estranged nations. China could likewise offer low-cost stealth fighter options to various countries in Southeast Asia, perhaps as a way of rebuilding what has until now remained a tense relationship. In the long-term, China could even build alliances beyond the Asia-Pacific, offering the planes to countries in the Middle East and Latin America that are unlikely to receive American stealth planes in the short-term. In short, the J-31 and the developments surrounding it represent a broader opportunity for China to potentially undermine a status quo that up until now has been stacked against it. If China can successfully exploit this opportunity, then perhaps the lofty rhetoric that has surrounded China’s “rise” will finally be vindicated.

[1] “China lands first jet on its aircraft carrier.” CBS News. Nov. 24, 2012.

[2] John O’Callaghan and Manuel Mogato. “The US military pivot to Asia: when bases are not bases.” Reuters. Nov. 14, 2012.

[3] Nathan Hodge “China’s J-20 Fighter: Stealth or Just Stealthy-Looking?” The Wall Street Journal. Jan. 19, 2011.

[4] Eli Epstein “China Unveils New Fighter Jet, J-31” International Business Times. Nov. 2, 2012.

[5] J.R. “Fighter-fleet response.” The Economist. May 1, 2012.