The test flight of the “Sharp Sword” unmanned aircraft is another step in China’s years-long military build-up, with its defence spending now the second highest in the world and growing by double-digit percentages each year.
It comes weeks after Tokyo said a drone had flown near East China Sea islands claimed by both it and Beijing, ratcheting tensions between the rivals up another notch.
“The successful flight shows the nation has again narrowed the air-power disparity between itself and Western nations,” the China Daily newspaper said, adding the flight made China the “fourth power… capable of putting a stealth drone into the sky”.
Images posted online showed a sleek grey delta-wing aircraft apparently powered by a jet engine and resembling an American combat drone.
Beijing is steadily building its military muscle and unveiled its first stealth fighter, the J-20, in early 2011, though it is not expected to enter service until 2018.
China’s first aircraft carrier — a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine and named the Liaoning — went into service in September 2012, but is not expected to be fully operational for several years.
The Sharp Sword might be intended for eventual use with the aircraft carrier and for “long endurance” surveillance missions, said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the US-based think tank International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“This demonstrates the enormous investment that China is making toward building a world class level of military power,” he said in an email.
This type of aircraft “will greatly complicate the defence” of other countries, including Japan and the US, he added.
A drone was at the centre of a recent spat between Beijing and Tokyo, whose dispute over islands known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese has raised concerns of conflict.
An unidentified unmanned aircraft flew near the islands in September, where China routinely conducts maritime patrols, prompting Japan to scramble fighter jets. The aircraft came from the northwest and returned in that direction, a Japanese defence official said.
Tokyo later threatened to shoot down any such aircraft, a move that Beijing warned would amount to an “act of war”.
Chinese state media widely reported the new aircraft in close detail, although they said the test-flight was first revealed by ordinary Internet users on a popular military web forum cjdby.net.
Chinese authorities quickly censor any news or images exposed online by citizens that they deem sensitive, so it is unlikely they did not approve the reports.
State broadcaster CCTV, citing eyewitnesses, said on its international channel that the test flight lasted 20 minutes on Thursday afternoon in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
The flight “implies that China has made the leap from drones to combat drones”, it said, calling it the move of “major significance”.
Hong Kong-based military expert Andrei Chang said that by producing a heavy combat drone China had achieved a milestone claimed by few countries, but added that the aircraft’s design appeared “a little bit naive”.
Unlike the American version, the engine appeared to be exposed, which would reduce its stealth capabilities, said Chang, editor of the Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, adding that China did not have “enough experience” in the field.
The aircraft was developed by two subsidiaries of Aviation Industry Corp of China, the country’s top aircraft manufacturer, the China Daily said.