China's J-20 stealth fighter. (Internet photo)
China's fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20, is designed for potential conflict in the South China Sea, says the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-run tabloid known for its nationalistic bent.
With a combat radius of 2,000 kilometers, the J-20 is capable of flying from China to Wan'an Bank — the furthest reef knoll in the disputed Spratly chain — without refueling. Wan'an Bank is currently controlled by Vietnam, where it is known as Vanguard Bank.
Development of the J-20 appears to have been influenced by the Johnson South Reef Skirmish between China and Vietnam in 1988, when Beijing found that it would be close to impossible to drive Vietnam out of the Spratlys, which China claims, without a strong air force.
Before the J-20 enters service — expected in 2018 — Chinese fighters including the J-10, J-11, Su-27 and Su-30 will be able to make trips to the South China Sea, albeit with the support from aerial refueling tanker aircraft. With combat radiuses of 1,500km, these aircraft are also able to attack ships near Scarborough Shoal, where China was recently engaged in a military standoff with the Philippines.
The construction of an airfield at Woody island — known in China as Yongxing island — in the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands will further shorten the distance between the PLA Air Force and potential battlefields.
The second J-20 prototype recently completed a flight test at an air base in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu; a Russian military news outlet has reported that there are four to five J-20 prototypes currently serving with the Chinese air force. When the Varyag, China's first and only aircraft carrier, begins service, its deployment to the South China Sea may also increase China's bargaining power in deals with Vietnam and the Philippines, said the Global Times.