Speaking to reporters en route to Beijing, the first visit there by a U.S. defense secretary since 2005, Mr. Gates said he hopes to develop closer military relations with China’s military to avoid miscalculations.
“We knew they were working on a stealth aircraft,” he said. “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.”
The comments echo those last week by Navy Vice Adm. David Dorsett, director of naval Intelligence, who told a group of defense reporters Wednesday that China’s new jet did not surprise U.S. intelligence, but he noted that the U.S. underestimated “the speed at which they are making progress.”
Critics of U.S. intelligence on China have said Beijing’s development of new missiles, submarines, aircraft and anti-satellite and cyberwarfare weapons have been underestimated by U.S. analysts for more than a decade.
Mr. Gates also took issue with critics who said he canceled further production of the Air Force’s fifth-generation fighter, the F-22, after 187 aircraft in part because of estimates that China would not have a comparable jet until 2020.
“I never said — as somebody quoted me — that their stealth aircraft didn’t matter,” Mr. Gates said. “What I said was that in 2020 or 2025 that there would still be a vast disparity in the number of deployed fifth-generation aircraft that the United States had compared to anybody else in the world.
“And I continue to stand by that statement, even with some of the program changes that we’ve made in the Joint Strike Fighter,” he said, referring to the F-35, a smaller and less-capable jet that has been hampered by program delays and cost overruns.
Mr. Gates said some of the higher-priority areas for future U.S. weapon developments announced last week as part of his proposal to cut $78 billion in defense spending include a greater focus on countering some of China’s “anti-access” weapons programs, such as long-range anti-ship missiles and advanced aircraft.
“They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk,” Mr. Gates said, according to a Pentagon transcript of his remarks.”We have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs.”
Mr. Gates, who arrived in Beijing on Sunday, said he hopes that closer military relations with China’s communist-controlled armed forces will produce a strategic dialogue that might reduce China’s need for “some of these capabilities.”
The Gates trip is part of a resumption of high-level military visits, which China canceled last year to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. China asked for the defense secretary to first visit China before the visit to the U.S. later this month by Chinese President Hu Jintao.