By Tyler Sheets
Staff Writer

The legislated land of only children is in the spotlight it believes it deserves. Its latest attention-grabbing stunts include the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) tantrum over Japan’s claim of the Senkaku Islands—which the Japanese legally acquired in 1895—and the suspiciously-timed “leak” of photographs of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) second new stealth fighter while Leon Panetta was packing for his first trip to China as Secretary of Defense. Much of the rhetoric from the Chinese leadership, including the Party Constitution (the nation’s primary guiding policy document), reveals China’s intention to supplant U.S. command of the seas and skies, starting regionally and eventually extending into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In China, these aims are discussed in historical terms like the return of the Middle Kingdom, wherein Asia revolves around China, and “the end of the century of national humiliation,” referring to Dutch, Japanese and Korean victories over the Chinese military, as well as China’s economic and social lag while the West raced forward). [1] [2]

Though the Senkaku crisis will almost certainly be resolved through a combination of diplomatic, informational, military and economic (DIME) [3] resources, the shiny new aircraft, designated the J-31, is here to stay. Since its total flight time was just 11 minutes at the start of writing this piece, all discussion on the jet is speculation and has focused on the technical capabilities of the jet. This piece speculates at times as well, but will show that there are already geopolitical implications to China’s new weapon and its development.

First, there is convincing evidence that the Chinese committed cyber-theft to acquire information from BAE systems and Lockheed Martin used to develop the jet. While China has made huge technological leaps through theft, this strategy is not sustainable; China’s trajectory will plateau as cyber defenses improve and the international defense community becomes more wary of dealing with the Chinese. Second, the acquisition of the former USSR aircraft carrier formerly called the Varyag (under the pretense of turning it into a floating casino) combined with the rapid development of fighter planes equipped to complement it indicate that China’s goal is to upset the power balance between itself and the so-called first island chain (viewed by the Chinese as a barrier between the Chinese coast and the Pacific stretching from the Japanese archipelago to the Greater Sunda Islands) [4]. Upsetting the power balance means weighing the advantages of Chinese and U.S. strategies. Finally, this new weapon is evidence of China’s return on defense investments since the 1980’s and is indicative of how Chinese culture and society impact defense policy and therefore regional security.

Imitation isn’t Flattering

The importance of history is not lost on China, a nation whose history stretches back to 5000 BC [5]. Three incidents from the past thirty years hold particular salience in the PLA leadership’s discussion of security strategy [6]. In 1982, the Argentine military crossed a short body of water to “reunite” with a nearby island only to see the Royal Navy diagonally traverse the Atlantic and rout Argentine forces. The Falkland Islands remain a British Overseas Territory to this day. From this, according to Col. Kevin Gregory of the Army War College, the PLA “gained an appreciation for the power of naval airpower as UK naval aircraft provided fleet coverage thousands of miles from home.” Defensively, they realized the importance of severing sea lines of communication, which is the foundation of their current anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. Offensively, they pursued acquisition of an aircraft carrier and seventeen years later purchased the aforementioned Varyag carrier from the Ukraine via a corporation aspiring to build a floating casino, while quietly transferring the carrier to the PLA Navy (PLAN). A week after the J-31 took its first test flight, The Telegraph reported that Yan Xuetong, Dean of International Affairs at Tsinghua University, referring to Japan’s defense of the Senkaku Islands, “warned that unless one side backs down, there could be a repeat of the Falklands in Asia.” [7]

The two other conflicts in which the Central Military Commission strive to imitate the winners and avoid the mistakes of the losers involve imitating the United States and avoiding the mistakes of her opponents. First, Operation Desert Storm’s swift destruction of Iraq’s defense (similar to the Chinese defense at the time [8]) rattled top brass in Beijing.

Second, in Kosovo the entire world watched as high-tech air power pummeled Yugoslav forces. China also took note of America’s dependence on air technology and sound intelligence and suffered the accidental “precision” bombing of their embassy in Belgrade due to incorrect coordinates from the CIA. Additionally, Robert Pape’s influential article “The True Worth of Airpower” blasted the United States’ “decapitation” strategy, prescribing a “hammer and anvil” strategy placing air power in a supportive role of ground missions [9]. However, the Chinese, without a stealth aircraft at the time, were only learning strategy, but craving technology.

When the Chinese first allowed leaked images and eventually tested the J-20, their first stealth fighter, it shocked war-tech hobbyists, China watchers, and members of the defense community as prominent as Sec. Robert Gates, who was in China at the time and had recently predicted that it would be almost a decade before China would have a stealth fighter.

With the rest of the world’s jaws still dropped at China’s technological leap, a few officers in the Balkans scoffed. In early 2011, one of those officers was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that when the first and only F-117 ever lost in combat fell in Serbia, civilians collected large portions of the plane as souvenirs and that the Chinese were buying them up. According to these officers, the Chengdu J-20 was not indigenous, but transposed acquired U.S. technology onto a newer design. China’s history of reverse-engineering and theft of intellectual property added weight to such opinions [10]. Military techies at any of the vast number of blogs tracking the PLA’s every move have noted the similarity of the structure and capability of the J-20 and the F-22 Raptor as well.

Soon after its debut, two opinions emerged as to whether the PLAAF intended to use the plane as a bomber or a fighter. Bill Sweetman, editor of Defence Technology International stood at one pole as the Internet’s premier advocate of the bomber view. His view was based on the plane’s 70 ft. length and an assumption that the distance between Chinese air bases and enemy targets required a long-range stealth bomber. His opinion matched China’s geostrategic position. Defending against militaries across a major land border and across sea barriers from distant bases requires a long range bomber.

The opposing view, while holding that the length of the J-20 is a relevant feature, foresaw the J-20 in dog-fights and in use as an area-access denier. This is now the dominant view and better matches the recent direction of the PLA. This view depends on observations that the J-20 features an uncanny number of similarities to the F-22. However, Kopp and Goon (the earliest advocates of this perspective) explain in Air Power Australia that the J-20’s stealth shaping and payload capacity have prepared it to outperform both the F-22 Raptor and the yet-to-deploy JSF-35 in a dogfight. They went as far as to call the assumption that America’s prize fighters can compete with the J-20 “absurd”. Stepping up their warnings, they added that the Chinese plane could destroy early warning systems of naval craft within 1,000 nautical miles of the Chinese coast, eliminate Air Force and Navy tankers, and thereby severely complicate, if not eliminate, air operations at Andersen Air Force Base (AFB), a key link in the first island chain’s defense [11]. This view is a thorn in the U.S. Defense Department’s side.

With this capability, it became apparent that the J-20 was not just based on technology bought in Serbian villages. In 2009, a rumor began to fester that BAE, Britain’s primary defense contractor and a contributor to the JSF-35, had been hacked and that information had been stolen by the Chinese government. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese embassy in London announced (joked?) that China condemns all forms of online crime, and called the allegation baseless. Security experts, U.S. Defense officials, and even BAE employees have indicated they believe information on the JSF-35 had been stolen and that China was the prime suspect. The Wall Street Journal discovered that, “The intruders were able to copy and siphon off several terabytes of data related to design and electronics systems”.

In 2010, the United States pursued 11 cases of espionage against the Chinese, all but one related to technology [12]. Charles Caleb Colton once famously claimed, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Well, the United States isn’t flattered. It is way over-budget on a program that the Chinese, at least in part, now benefit from. The J-20 and the J-31 now fly over China to cheers of crowds, while the JSF-35 begs for more money and is running out of support while it collects ever more criticism.

Red Yawn?

Some claim the J-31, and even the fact that it was stolen, merely shows China’s ability to grab headlines, excite China watchers, and temporarily distract the Pentagon. China is without a doubt engaged in the publicity aspects of the defense industry. It has set the Internet ablaze with rumors of Chinese strength and what it will come out with next. The photographs of Chinese defense tech regularly popping up on the Internet on various blogs are not clandestinely photographed by China watchers as the uploaders portray them to be. China is a closed society and completely capable of keeping secrets. The photographs of the J-20, the J-31, and the yet-to-be-fully-disclosed mystery plane are professionally taken from distances too close to be taken by civilian bloggers. China is nurturing patriotism while distracting from pestering human rights violation accusations by troublemakers like Ai Wei Wei.

China has been successful in this venture. Richard Fisher, an expert on Asian military affairs, recently compared Chinese defense news fans in the People’s Republic to NASCAR fans in the United States. There is no report as of yet whether the JSF-35 was jealous of Fisher’s assessment, but we can assume. In defense, however, popularity isn’t everything.

All the talk about China’s defense tech and the limited information we get has led to outlandish exaggerations of capabilities and Chinese technological innovation. More sensible voices have pointed out that in spite of China’s cunning tech thefts, it has been unable to overcome enough technological problems to make the J-31 more valuable to China than the JSF-35 would be to the United States and its allies.

For one, the Chinese are severely deficient in jet engine technology. They currently rely on Russian engines to power the J-31, and even this engine is far behind technology that the United States outgrew decades ago. According to John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, the engine problem “is a sucking chest wound of Chinese military aviation.”. If the ever-fragile Russo-Chinese relationship were to sour, the J-31 could cease production.

Furthermore, aspects of the J-31, especially the dual front wheels, have given away the PLA’s intention to conduct short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) operations. If the Chinese are basing their STOVL capability design on the JSF-35, the J-31 will face the same complications as the United States, compounded by the limitations of the ex-Varyag. The only Chinese aircraft carrier features a ski-jump ramp from which the J-31 will need to take off. The ramp limits the plane’s flight as well as the number of fighters the carrier can transport. If the J-31 is not designed to land on a ski-jump carrier, the Chinese air arsenal does not provide a clear option for flight from the ex-Varyag. Perhaps the Chinese intend to produce two versions for each type of carrier in the future. This much is clear: the J-31 is years, perhaps decades away from operating beyond or even near the first island chain.

Up In The Air

My profound and exciting conclusion is that China’s future is up in the air and it is unclear what the J-31 will mean for the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Central Asia, and Sino-U.S. relations. This conclusion will bore some and frustrate others. Those who say that the J-31 is a clear step in the trajectory of China’s great leap forward will be upset; those who are concerned about China’s rise won’t find an answer in this article.

More than anything, the J-31 provides insight into the Chinese defense culture. This culture was most perfectly described by Toshi Yoshihara of the Naval War College in one word: “claustrophobic” [13].

China’s geography, especially its long coastline and proximity to important trade partners, among other features, has been described as advantageous by some scholars. However, from another perspective, China operates in a tough neighborhood. China borders 14 countries, and it’s not a friendly list: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia (at two separate borders), North Korea, and Kyrgyzstan just to name a few. Even the economic and military benefit of its long coastline is only beneficial to 1,000 nautical miles, where they face the “first island chain”. This chain is a string of adversaries friendly to the U.S. military that closes China off from the Pacific and Indian Oceans. After the first island chain, there is a second island chain with many of the same frustrations.

The J-31 is not only evidence of China’s awareness of the island chain obstacle, but that it intends to undo the disadvantage. The strategy is likely to combine the capabilities of the J-20 to deny area access between China and the first island chain and from there to station carrier(s) on the other side of the island chain. This ideal situation for the Chinese would require restructuring the entire defense structure of Japan and Taiwan.

Both island nations have had the advantage of focusing all of their defense energy along their Eastern coasts. If the ex-Varyag and a potential second carrier, possibly a catapult-launch style carrier, could position on the Western coasts of these nations, the trouble is obvious. This effort would focus on Taiwan.

The difficulty of Taiwan, which the Chinese continue to believe is an extension of the mainland, is more than just historical to China. Taiwan, mostly because of its powerful American friend, divides the Northern and Southern divisions of the PLAN, meaning that they cannot support one another when either is weak. Furthermore, the underwater terrain south of Taiwan is the ideal route for Chinese commerce to the open Pacific. The Chinese have argued that these features make Taiwan a crucial problem for the Chinese government, while the United States has no immediate interest in the area and is merely intervening for intervening’s sake.

The United States does, however, have a critical interest in the area that China is either downplaying for its advantage or has arrogantly ignored. The United States and its allies have a serious interest in maintaining the status quo. Any escalation of conflict would hinder trade, but even the possibility of conflict increases insurance rates and makes trade in the first island chain prohibitively expensive. The constant claim from the Chinese government that it wants peace in the area is evidence of its awareness of this fact. Yet, the PLA continues to blatantly violate the implicit and explicit rules of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Though the U.S. senate has not ratified the UNCLOS treaty, presidents of both parties have emphasized its importance and have abided by its principles.

Furthermore, Chinese aggression has pushed ASEAN nations away from China and towards the United States. This tension forms a new geopolitical map where certain ships are not safe and must take elongated routes for the U.S. military to fulfill its obligations to its allies and for ASEAN nations to conduct commerce. The U.S. military will not ignore these interests.

China is not only frustrated with its neighbors. China must also consider its internal security and does so through a heavy-handed police state. China’s military supports its police in a meaningful way. Since the Arab Spring began, the Chinese have been especially ready to use state power to quell any suspected resistance. Under China’s Emergency Response Law, the military is authorized to establish security cordons and checkpoints, control traffic, guard key installations, control fuel, power, and water supplies, and use force to quell resistance . Ethnic conflict in Xingjiang in 2009 highlighted the importance of internal security as a function of the PLA. Internal security is a challenge the Chinese military must always be prepared for, and another reason it is not the threat many imagine it to be.

Yet, through imitation or innovation, China’s military has shown faster progress than anyone predicted. Still, inability to acquire indigenous engines for their newest plane, potential advances in cyber security, and a migraine-inducing list of security challenges could keep the dragon’s head underwater. Or that could be wishful thinking on the part of U.S. and all those who enjoy the benefits of marine research, respect for law, international sovereignty, and cheap commercial transport.

1. Gregory, “China’s Military Transformation”, 1
2. Ward, 2011
3. Yu-Chin, 2012
4. Yoshihara, 2012
5. Worthing, 2007
6. Gregory, “China’s Military Transformation”, 2
7. Moore, “Military Conflict ‘Looms’ Between China and Japan”, The Telegraph, Sep. 27, 2012
8. Gregory, “China’s Military Transformation”, 3
9. Pape, 2004
10. Cheung 2011, “The Chinese Defense Economy’s Long March from Imitation to Innovation”
11. http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-J-XX-Prototype.html, Kopp & Goon “Chengdu J-XX [J-20] Stealth Fighter Prototype” Air Power Australia
12. http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110119-chinese-espionage-and-french-trade-secrets, Noonan “Chinese Espionage and French Trade Secrets” Stratfor Global Intelligence
13. Yoshihara, 2012 “China’s Vision of It’s Seascape: The First Island Chain and China’s Seapower”

Image by roger.badsoul


  1. It’s a mistake to characterize the J-31 as a STOVL design. While it is superficially similar to the F-35 (not “JSF-35”), its twin engine design is completely incompatible with later adaption into a STOVL aircraft, and the airframe is not benchmarked around a STOVL variant like the JSF – this difference alone makes it wrong to compare the F-35 and J-31 (the Soviets never operated STOVL or VTOL Yak-38s off Kuznetsov aviation cruisers the Liaoning’s derived from). The aircraft’s twin nosewheel is thought to be indicative of future STOBAR, not STOVL, carrier operations, though it is important to note that non-US land based fighters like the MiG-23 featured dual nosewheels for short field operations.

    It’s also a stretch to imply that the J-20 and J-31 are resounding successes and the JSF’s a failure – there’s a BIG difference between flying prototypes and a full-scale acquisition program.


  2. Your first point is duly noted. Your second was noted in the article:
    “Since its total flight time was just 11 minutes at the start of writing this piece, all discussion on the jet is speculation and has focused on the technical capabilities of the jet.”


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