Since 2000, the PLA air force has taken delivery of almost 550 advanced fighter and strike aircraft that potentially match or even exceed the capabilities of all current Western aircraft except the F-22, some aviation experts said.
And, the PLA still has more than 1,000 less advanced fighters to defend its airspace.
That means only the U.S.’s 185 F-22s and 20 stealthy B-2 bombers could penetrate China’s airspace in a conflict right now, according to senior U.S and Asian military commanders.
Another key objective for Beijing is to keep U.S aircraft carrier battle groups far away from areas of operations near the Chinese coast.
It has invested heavily in submarines, surface warships and missiles that could be used to attack carriers or keep them at bay, forcing their aircraft to operate at long distances.
Paradoxically, some analysts believe China’s capacity to attack carriers could mean the F-35 makes less difference to Asia’s arms buildup than most assume.
“It’s a bit radical, but I don’t think the U.S. Navy really needs the F-35 because I don’t think the USN can get the F-35 within range of Chinese targets. The Chinese capacity to sink the carriers they are floating on is too great,” said Hugh White, a former top Australian defence official who steered Canberra’s decision to buy the F-35.