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The decoder: China slaps the Pentagon

Why did China test its J-20 stealth fighter while Secretary Gates was in town?

U.S. Sec. of Defense Robert Gates (left) inspects an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing on Jan. 10, 2011. (Andy Wong/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — It was, to put it mildly, an awkward moment in diplomacy.

On Tuesday, just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the Chinese military conducted the inaugural flight test of a new stealth warplane, the J-20.

Gates had traveled to Beijing hoping to ease tensions with the Chinese military, which had reached a nadir since U.S. President Barack Obama took office. In the face of Chinese reluctance, he had lobbied hard for the visit, a worthy quest to promote peace with a major rival.

He was also motivated by financial concerns. Days before the visit, he had announced sharp cuts in the Pentagon’s budget. The cash-strapped United States desperately needs to slash spending, and the prospect of conflict with China costs the American taxpayers a fortune every year. Warmer relations could mean less money spent on fighter jets and aircraft carriers.

But with this high-profile test flight, were his hosts sending a message?

The J-20, which could go into production later this decade, is an advanced and expensive fighter, deploying radar-evading engineering, a major battlefield field advantage that only the United States currently holds. Was Beijing demonstrating that China was catching up much faster than the United States realized? Was its military brass suggesting that thwarting an arms race was not on Beijing’s agenda, regardless of Washington’s wishes?

Or was the timing merely an unfortunate coincidence?

Sec. Gates confronted his interlocutor about the J-20 flight. Oddly, at first the Chinese president appeared to be unaware of it. Eventually he confirmed that it had taken place. But Hu said the timing “had absolutely nothing to do with my visit,” Gates later told the press.

Asked if he believed that, Gates responded: “I take President Hu at his word.”

Press accounts of the incident focused largely on whether the civilian leadership in Beijing had lost control of the military, or whether hardliners were jockeying for power in advance of China’s 2012 leadership transition. The incident was still making headlines today, though Gates had already moved on to Japan and is set to culminate his northeast Asian tour in Seoul on Friday.

These are interesting questions. But they distract from the main point.

In China, symbolism speaks louder than words, and the official message is strictly controlled. The country’s communist leadership is by no means monolithic, but the question of who exactly scheduled the flight hardly matters, given that those involved hold the keys to the country’s most advanced weapons. And not only did they time the flight when Gates was in town, but they invited a posse of bloggers to witness it and disseminate videos for China’s legions of internet users.