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Sunday, January 16, 2011

China ratchets up military

President Hu Jintao's two-day visit to the United States this week has been billed by the White House as the most important state visit in years. Many contentious issues are on the table - human rights, trade and currency, internet freedom.

But with Hu's arrival imminent, an even hotter issue is climbing fast up the agenda - China's challenge to America's military might in space.

According to reports since deleted from Hong Kong-based websites, China has recently staged a successful test-flight of a pilotless craft, variously described as a "space plane" and "an upper-atmosphere jet fighter".

It closely resembles and appears to be intended to rival America's X-37B, an unmanned craft which landed in California before Christmas after a seven-month test flight.

Both the X-37B (artist's impression above), made by Boeing, and the as yet unnamed Chinese craft are thought to have been built to perform the same tasks, according to the Sunday Times: "long-duration, low-orbit missions including reconnaissance, attacking satellites and launching precision ground strikes".

The English-language website of the South Korean newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, claims that Chinese authorities moved quickly to suppress any further reporting of the space plane after first reports emerged earklier this month courtesy of Hong Kong-based media.

The Zhongguo Pinglun (China Review), reportedly headlined its article: "China succeeds in spacecraft test flight in tandem with US X-37B". The article is no longer available.

The Chosun Ilbo claimed Zhao Zhengyong, governor of Shaanxi province, had been pictured on local television on January 7 visiting a state-run aviation plant in the city of Xian's industrial development zone.

He was shown inspecting the prototype of a pilotless space plane and complimenting the engineers.

The Chosun Ilbo said the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao quoted Governor Zhao as saying China had "succeeded in the test flight of a prototype aircraft that can fly through the atmospheric layer".

According to the Chosun Ilbo, no mainland Chinese website has subsequently mentioned the space plane or its test flight.

The reports of the space plane emerged around the time of the recent test flight of the J-20 - China's answer to the American Stealth fighter.

On that occasion, the Chinese, far from suppressing the news, openly boasted about its test flight, which coincided with a visit to Beijing by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

When Gates expressed concerns about the J-20 test flight, President Hu sought to assure him that the timing was coincidental and not related to his visit.

However, the exercise was clearly intended to illustrate China's capability - and to wrong-foot Gates, who had earlier stated that the J-20 was not going to be ready for action until the year 2020.

Still images from the 18-minute flight over the city of Chengdu, published by China's official Xinhua news agency, suggested the J-20 might be operational a lot sooner than that.

As Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington ahead of Hu's state visit, China is investing in "very high end, high tech capabilities" many of which "seem to be focused very specifically on the United States".

Mullen concluded: "The question that is always out there is to try to understand exactly why.",news-comment,news-politics,-china-ratchets-up-military-tension-ahead-of-hu-visit

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