China has successfully tested its second stealth fighter, a smaller, twin-engine jet that military analysts said could potentially allow it to one day fly missions from an aircraft carrier.
In-flight photos of the new fighter - which has been dubbed the "J-31" by military enthusiasts - were posted on Chinese military forums and picked up by the website of Global Times, a newspaper published by People's Daily.
The photos showed a black Shenyang Aircraft Industry-designed jet flying alongside China's indigenous J-11B. The code J31001 was written on its nose.
The trial by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (Avic) subsidiary makes China only the second nation after the United States to test successfully two fifth-generation, advanced, multirole fighters. The development is likely to stoke discussion about the budding military rivalry between the two nations.
Another Avic subsidiary - the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute - staged a successful test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter in January of last year - as President Hu Jintao was meeting then-US defence secretary Robert Gates in Beijing.
Military analysts said the new jet's design suggested the People's Liberation Army might use it to arm and escort aircraft carriers like the Liaoning, which was officially deployed last month. The PLA currently lacks a carrier-based fighter jet.
"The prototype of the J31001 might become a carrier-based fighter jet in the future because its size is smaller and slimmer than the J-20," said Senior Colonel Li Jie , a Beijing-based naval expert. "But compared with the development progress of J-20, there is still a long way to go."
Li said that the PLA has not yet given the prototype a formal designation and cautioned that the "J-31" name often used was incorrect.
Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, said the flight provided further evidence that Shenyang Aircraft, which has been known for its copies of Soviet-designed Su-series fighters, was now successfully cloning US planes.
Chang said the new prototype appears to have borrowed features from the US Air Force's twin-engine F-22 and US Navy's single-engine F-35C.
Chang said Shenyang Aircraft was more interested in deploying it on the PLA's budding carrier fleet than selling it on the international market as they had originally claimed.
"As far as I know, the PLA Air Force didn't get involved in this project, but it's not clear whether the navy is one of the investors." Chang said.
Xu Guangyu , of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing, said yesterday's test flight showed China was now second only to the US in stealth technology.
"But there is till a huge gap between China and the US' fighter jet technologies because we are still testing our both the J-20 and the J-31," Xu said. "It might take another couple of years before we can put them on the production line."