China's first radar evading stealth fighter made its maiden test flight on Tuesday, making the country only the second nation after US to test such cutting edge technology.
The test of the 5th generation fighter was confirmed by President Hu Jintao to visiting US defence secretary Robert Gates during their meeting in Beijing on Tuesday, thus lifting a cloak of secrecy over the plane, seen as an attempt by China to catch up with US defence technology.
"I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that's where we left it," Gates told reporters.
The aircraft called J-20 took off from an airstrip at Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute just before 1300 hours and flew for about 20 minutes, official media websites said.
Images and witness accounts were posted online of the twin engine plane making its epic maiden flight and on the ground surrounded by men in army overcoats, the websites said, adding that normally secretive People's Liberation Army had made no attempt to hide or remove the photos from the internet.
Tacitly confirming the test flight, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a media briefing that it is natural that countries update their defence equipment to develop a strong defence to safeguard their unity and integrity.
The weapon development was not targeted against anyone, he added.
The images of the J-20 in flight suggest China is making faster than expected progress in developing a potential rival to the US F-22 (Raptor), currently the world's only fully operational stealth fighter.
The US is also using the stealth technology in production of the F-35 joint strike fighter. India and Russia have also carried out test flights of their stealth fighter based on Sukhoi T-50 jet. The photos showed the new fighter taking off from an airbase with the older J-10 fighters giving it a chase.
While acknowledging that Chinese have made rapid strides in military technology, US experts say the fighter is many years away from actual deployment.
Before his arrival to Beijing, Gates told media that "we knew they were working on a stealth aircraft. I think that what we’ve seen is that they may be somewhat further ahead in the development of that aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted".
Playing down its significance he said despite such new weapons systems, US continue to have technological edge in military equipment.
The US experts said that the Chinese military aviation still relied heavily on imported Russian technology and the new fighter could be efforts to upgrade the Russian Su-27 fighters of the Chinese Air Force.
They said that Beijing has developed two prototypes with one using Russian engine and the other indigenous one. It was not clear which version of the fighter took to the air on Tuesday.