TERRITORIAL ROWS WITH CHINA
When Asian customers first lodged orders, regional conflict appeared remote. But a bitter territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of islands in the East China Sea has crystallized attention on China’s expanding fleet of advanced fighters and strike aircraft.
China is also pitted against the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations over claims to the South China Sea. Both bodies of water are potentially rich in oil and gas.
Western analysts are skeptical about whether the new Chinese fighters will be any match for the fifth generation F-35 or the more expensive Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor already in service with the U.S. air force but not available for export.
In addition to the challenges of designing and operating stealth aircraft, China will have to overcome shortcomings with locally made engines that have forced it to rely almost exclusively on Russian power plants for its current frontline fighters.
While Lockheed continues to promise F-35s on Asia-Pacific runways from around 2017, the aircraft may not be available in meaningful numbers for five years beyond that.
That leaves Japan and South Korea relying on a generation of older planes the F-35 was supposed to replace.
“You can keep an aeroplane for as long as you want. The problem with aircraft age is you lose availability and reliability of the aircraft,” said Australia’s air force chief, Air Marshal Geoff Brown.
Japanese defence officials and experts said Tokyo was not about to panic.