NEW YORK • China may declare its first stealth fighter operational this year as it also develops long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, part of a regional build-up by Beijing that the US is closely monitoring, according to the US Air Force's Pacific commander.
General Charles Brown, head of Pacific Air Forces, said the stealthy J-20 fighter could "possibly" be operational this year, a move signalling "greater threat, greater capability" for China in the Pacific.
He went on to emphasise that US efforts to counter those developments include rising deployments of next-generation F-35 jets and continuing overflights of strategic areas such as the South China Sea.
"My sense of the way the Chinese operate is somewhat incremental," Gen Brown said in an interview this week. "They'll continue to push the envelope to figure out does anybody say or do anything - if you don't push back it'll keep coming."
Fielding the J-20 would add to the region's largest air force and world's third largest, with more than 2,500 aircraft including 1,700 combat fighters, strategic bombers, tactical bombers and multi-mission tactical and attack aircraft, the US Defence Intelligence Agency said in a report earlier this year.
China's J-20 fighter is part of a modernisation effort that has been "closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities, such as aircraft performance, command and control and electronic warfare", the report said.
Gen Brown also said he thinks China is moving to develop dual-use bombers that would be "similar to our bombers" in terms of being able to carry nuclear weapons and non-nuclear precision-guided weapons.
"I don't think it would be too far off the mark to say they could do that as well," he added, without indicating whether China may have a stealth bomber capability.
US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in a statement on Wednesday for the House Defence Appropriations subcommittee, said a Chinese long-range bomber "if successful, would make it only one of three nations" to "possess a nuclear triad" of land, sea and air-based nuclear capabilities.
Gen Brown, a four-star general who has logged more than 130 combat flight hours out of 2,900 overall, was speaking to Asia experts about the challenges facing his command.
He also touched briefly on the State Department and Pentagon's review of a potential sale of new F-16s to Taiwan.
US President Donald Trump's advisers have encouraged Taiwan to submit a formal request for the jets.
That request would need to be converted into a formal proposal by the Defence and State departments, and then Congress would have 30 days to decide whether to block the sale.
"There's been a little increase in tension there recently, which may be the impetus" behind Taiwan's request, Gen Brown said.
The Beijing government considers Taiwan's fate a "core interest" - more important than almost any other issue, and has increased pressure on countries and multinational companies to avoid actions that could imply sovereign status for the island.
The US, wary of antagonising China, has not sold advanced fighter jets to Taiwan since president George H. W. Bush announced the sale of 150 F-16s in 1992.
The Obama administration rejected a similar Taiwanese request for new jets, agreeing in 2011 to upgrade the island's existing fleet.