ZHUHAI, China -- China flexed its military muscle Tuesday during the country's largest air show, displaying its latest planes in a less-than-subtle reminder that it will not bow to U.S. pressure, economic or otherwise.
"Get ready for the Jian-20," a spirited announcer proclaimed, drawing wild cheers from the crowd. Within seconds, three J-20 stealth fighter jets zoomed across the sky. The state-of-the-art aircraft, which were officially deployed last February, performed a series of turns and aerial climbs for the crowd in a display that lasted about five minutes.
"Their agility and maneuverability have improved from a couple years ago when they were still in development," said a senior air force official visiting from an Asian country.
Taking place in this coastal city for six days through Sunday, this year's China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition, also showcased a J-10B prototype, the latest variant of China's main J-10 fighter that first took to the air in 1998. It comes equipped with an upgraded homegrown engine, developer Aviation Industry Corp. of China said Monday. The thrust-vectoring nozzle makes extremely agile movements possible during aerial dogfights.
The prototype performed the highly demanding "cobra" aerobatic maneuver, in which the nose of the plane is raised vertically before immediately dropping back to the normal horizontal position. Even today, Chinese fighter jets largely rely on Russian-made engines, but the new engine "broke down a barrier" by being produced at home, said an Aviation Industry executive.
Zhuhai's air expo is billed as a showcase for China's family of large, domestically made planes. Making an appearance this year is the AG600, one of the world's largest amphibious aircraft, which only last month successfully made its first takeoff and landing on water.
The main purpose of the AG600 is purportedly rescues and disaster relief missions. But many observers believe the aircraft could play an active role in the South China Sea, the center of a territorial dispute among several countries, to establish the fact that China has effective control over the area.
The Y-20 heavy transport plane also made an appearance at the show. The aircraft can deliver armored vehicles and other equipment during inclement weather, enabling China's armed forces to project power over a wider area.
Through this display of Made-in-China weaponry, it appears Beijing is flaunting its domestic development capabilities, and sending a message that it will not buckle against the trade war with Washington.
A record of roughly 770 exhibitors from 43 nations and regions are participating in the air show. During the last expo in 2016, more than $40 billion worth of contracts were signed for 187 aircraft. With this year's roster boasting the Wing Loong unmanned aerial vehicle, which is in strong demand abroad, as well as the Z-10 attack helicopter, the value of the deals could exceed 2016's levels.
However, China has been accused of utilizing stolen technology from the U.S. military, and of imitating American hardware. Chinese President Xi Jinping has championed the concept of a "military-civilian fusion," in which technology is shared between the military and the private sector. This dovetails with the country's goal to become a military power on par with the U.S. by mid-century.
The interrelationship between the China's armed forces and industry is one reason why U.S. President Donald Trump has taken a hard line against technological transfers to Chinese enterprises. Believing that it is still too early to challenge the U.S. directly, Beijing has been seeking to soften Trump's stance. Xi's speech on Monday touting China's open markets was part of those efforts.
At the same time, there is a strong awareness in China of the need to beef up national defenses to protect interests from U.S. encroachment. While Beijing is doing its best to avoid provoking Washington, it is also staying the course on developing a strong military.
Symbolizing China's two-pronged approach is the H-20, the stealth bomber said to be in development. The U.S. state of Hawaii would likely be in its range, but the air show did not feature a model of the aircraft. Chinese authorities could be keeping certain military secrets close to the vest, but some speculate that they are also trying to avoid unnecessary agitation.