China unveiled the locally built Jian-10 last week, saying it narrows the gap with advanced nations.
A sleek, swept-wing fighter-bomber dubbed the "Jian-10," unveiled here last week, is more than just another jet plane. It is China's calling card, announcing Beijing's arrival among the top ranks of military manufacturers.
Powered by Chinese engines and firing Chinese precision-guided missiles, the locally built Jian-10 has "allowed China to become the fourth country in the world" to have developed such a capability, "narrowing the gap with advanced nations," boasted Geng Ruguang, deputy general manager of the plane's manufacturer, Avic-I.
The latest fruit of a military modernization drive that has produced an indigenous Chinese nuclear attack submarine, early warning aircraft, frigates and destroyers, cruise missiles, and computerized command and control systems, the Jian-10 is "a decisive step by China toward becoming an aviation power," the official Xinhua news agency declared.
The plane is also a new symbol of China's role-reversal in the global arms industry. "Most technology analysts have been surprised by the speed with which China has gone from being an arms-buying country to one with real promise of being a producer of front-edge military technology," says Denny Roy, senior researcher at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
To some of China's neighbors, though, that promise looks more like a threat. And Pentagon officials, too, have repeatedly urged Beijing to explain more clearly the purpose behind a military buildup that has seen defense spending rise by more than 10 percent a year since 1990, according to official Chinese figures.
Offering rare insights into the Chinese leadership's strategic view of the world, the government issued a defense white paper at the end of last year, in a bid to clarify its military policies.
The paper declares that "China's overall security environment remains sound," but notes "challenges that must not be neglected."
Chief among them, it says, is "the struggle to oppose and contain the separatist forces for 'Taiwan independence,' " which "remains a hard one." Beijing claims the island of Taiwan as its own – a position rejected by the government in Taipei.
The white paper, the first of its kind in two years, sets ambitious military goals for the People's Liberation Army (PLA), harping repeatedly on the need for technological modernization. By the middle of this century, China should be "capable of winning informationized wars," it says, referring to the computerized battlefield on which future wars will be fought.
Such capabilities, China insists, are "purely defensive in nature," and the report does not repeat the threat contained in the last white paper to crush any serious move toward Taiwanese independence "resolutely and thoroughly."
It does, however, note disapprovingly of heightened US-Japanese military cooperation, as Tokyo and Washington build a joint missile shield designed to protect Japan from North Korean missiles. Beijing appears to worry that Taiwan may one day be brought under this shield, blunting the mainland's military strength in any cross-Strait conflict.
The white paper came on the heels of a speech by President Hu Jintao calling for a stronger "blue water" navy with the ability to range far from home ports. "We should strive to build a powerful navy that adapts to the needs of our military's historical mission in this new century," Mr. Hu said.
"We should make sound preparations for military struggles and ensure the forces can effectively carry out missions at any time," he added.
What such missions might be was hinted at in the white paper, which mentions "ensur[ing] the interests of national development" as a key element of China's defense policy, and refers to security issues including "energy, resources, finance, information, and international shipping routes."
A Pentagon report last year detected Chinese ambitions to build a fleet capable of protecting the sea lanes that carry the country's vital oil imports through the Straits of Malacca, and of operating even farther afield, in the Indian Ocean.
China's growing political and economic interests, especially its worldwide appetite for imported raw materials, mean that it sees defending those interests in ever broader terms, says Dr. Roy.
"As such a big country, with an ever more global outlook, what China needs to do to defend its national interests will inevitably impinge on the interests of other countries," Roy predicts, and "it will demand a degree of diplomatic skill" to assuage neighbors' suspicions of Chinese intentions, he adds.
Many Western analysts accept Chinese officials' argument that military spending has increased only in line with their country's economic rise. Officially, spending is set at $36.4 billion this year, but it is generally believed to be about twice that.
But while "their focus is defensive, any weapon can be used offensively," points out Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific bureau chief for Jane's Defence Weekly. The White Paper sets out "primarily defensive concepts," he says, "but they are based on a degree of offensive capability and they have the capacity to undertake purely offensive operations if desired.
"The political environment is very stable at present ... but neighbors look at the concentrated buildup of China's military capabilities and it's at that, not the politics, where they have to concentrate their strategic thinking," Mr. Karniol argues. "Because intentions can change."