It was Beijing’s ironic Christmas present to the world. On Dec. 25, the first photos surfaced on-line depicting the long-anticipated Chengdu J-20, China’s first stealth fighter prototype. While pundits debated the significance — some predicting imminent doom, others urging calm — steadily more photos, and even videos, appeared. The sleek, supersonic J-20 flew for the first time on Jan. 10, and by then its dimensions and layout were clear.
Analysts began noticing similarities in appearance between the J-20 and several foreign stealth designs, particularly the Russian MiG-1.44 and America’s Lockheed Joint Air Strike Technology demonstrator, both products of the mid-1990s. The design parallels led some observers to question whether China had help with the J-20. In light of Moscow’s and Beijing’s strong and deepening aerospace relationship, it seemed plausible that Russia had licensed stealth technologies that at least influenced, if not enabled, Chengdu’s efforts.
But there seemed to be another, more sinister possibility: that Beijing had based the J-20 on captured, and stolen, American technology.