China's Not-So-Stealthy Symbol

China's military upstaged Defense Secretary Robert Gates visit to Beijing with a test flight of its new J-20 stealth fighter, a move that apparently caught even President Hu Jintao by surprise. The Wall Street Journal calls the test a potentially "huge embarrassment" for the Chinese leader, who, the Washington Post quotes one expert as saying, is "considered the weakest leader in communist China's short history."

But with probably a decade of tweaking before the plane goes into production, the New York Times says that "the hoopla surrounding the tests—both inside and outside China—suggests that the symbolism of Tuesday's flight may considerably outweigh its immediate significance." The symbolism, however, is powerful: the J-20 is bigger than the most advanced U.S. fighter, the F-22, which, the Journal notes, means "it was designed to carry more weapons" and "be based deep within Chinese territory" while carrying "enough fuel to establish air superiority over Taiwan" and the rest of its neighborhood.

Gates appeared more worried about China's neighbor (of course, what else is he going to say while he's in Beijing?), warning that North Korea is closer than previously thought to developing missiles capable of hitting the United States. The Times reports the assessment "is a significant shift for the Obama administration," which has focused on Pyongyang's weapons and nuclear dealings with other rogue actors rather than any direct threat to the American homeland.  As Spencer Ackermann points out, however, such predictions have been floating around for while—twelve years ago a commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld before he became SecDef warned of exactly the same time frame. Ackermann thinks it more likely that Gates is "stretching the evidence as a pressure tactic on the Chinese, to underscore how seriously the U.S. wants Beijing to rein in its North Korean client." The defense chief also warned Pyongyang to stop its missile and nuclear tests if North Korea really wants to rejoin the six-party talks again.