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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is visiting China, but that's not the big news there. Just ahead of his visit, pictures appeared on the Internet of a new stealth fighter, the second one China has built. The jet won't be operational for years, and there's not much known about its capabilities. But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, the timing of the pictures is significant.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: The J31, as analysts call it, shows just how fast China's moving. Phillip C. Saunders at the National Defense University has just written a book on the Chinese air force.
PHILLIP C. SAUNDERS: There's been a lot of progress over the last decade. And the fact that they can produce stealth fighter prototypes and have two factories that are producing them in competition with each other is a sign of how far China has come.
LIM: We've been here before. In January last year, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in town, China chose to flight-test its first stealth fighter. This was seen as embarrassing for Gates, who'd previously lobbied to end production of the U.S. F-22 jet fighters. Once again, the speed of China's military development has put the U.S. on the defensive.
CARLO KOPP: Clearly, there is an element here of showmanship and boasting.
LIM: That's Carlo Kopp from the Air Power Australia think tank.
KOPP: Nearly always, these disclosures are carefully timed to reinforce some political point. One could presume on the basis of the timing that it was meant to possibly demonstrate to the Chinese domestic audience that China is very active in developing advanced weapon systems.
LIM: Today, yet more leaked pictures emerged. They show what looks like a ceremony on the deck of China's first aircraft carrier. Rumors are swirling that the aircraft carrier could have been commissioned. The timing is feasible, says one Western diplomat, but it could be a publicity stunt, according to Yu Maochun, a China expert at the U.S. Naval Academy.
YU MAOCHUN: The timing of hyping up this commissioning date right now is actually very good for the Chinese psyche that is the anniversary of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria. And also, it shows Leon Panetta something China is really having. So I think it's very symbolic.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
LIM: The visit also coincided with massive anti-Japanese demonstrations across China. These were sparked by Japanese moves to buy disputed islands in the East China Sea. But according to Yu, some influential Chinese generals believe the U.S. is behind these tensions.
MAOCHUN: The Chinese Xinhua and the People's Daily gave prominent space to 10 military generals two days ago. Several of them say it is probably not really a good time to fight a war with Japan right now. The rationale behind that is the whole tension between China and Japan right now is a United States plot to keep China buried in a regional conflict with Japan, so U.S. can benefit from all this trouble.
LIM: This comes against the backdrop of the U.S. pivot to Asia. Panetta insists that rebalancing is not an attempt to contain China but an attempt to engage China. He's been given a red-carpet reception, even meeting the man likely to be China's next leader. The public talk is all of cooperation and building ties, but Beijing's new military hardware sends a very different message. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.