BOSTON — It was, to put it mildly, an awkward moment in diplomacy.

On Tuesday, just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the Chinese military conducted the inaugural flight test of a new stealth warplane, the J-20.

Gates had traveled to Beijing hoping to ease tensions with the Chinese military, which had reached a nadir since U.S. President Barack Obama took office. In the face of Chinese reluctance, he had lobbied hard for the visit, a worthy quest to promote peace with a major rival.

He was also motivated by financial concerns. Days before the visit, he had announced sharp cuts in the Pentagon’s budget. The cash-strapped United States desperately needs to slash spending, and the prospect of conflict with China costs the American taxpayers a fortune every year. Warmer relations could mean less money spent on fighter jets and aircraft carriers.

But with this high-profile test flight, were his hosts sending a message?

The J-20, which could go into production later this decade, is an advanced and expensive fighter, deploying radar-evading engineering, a major battlefield field advantage that only the United States currently holds. Was Beijing demonstrating that China was catching up much faster than the United States realized? Was its military brass suggesting that thwarting an arms race was not on Beijing’s agenda, regardless of Washington’s wishes?

Or was the timing merely an unfortunate coincidence?

Sec. Gates confronted his interlocutor about the J-20 flight. Oddly, at first the Chinese president appeared to be unaware of it. Eventually he confirmed that it had taken place. But Hu said the timing “had absolutely nothing to do with my visit,” Gates later told the press.

Asked if he believed that, Gates responded: “I take President Hu at his word.”

Press accounts of the incident focused largely on whether the civilian leadership in Beijing had lost control of the military, or whether hardliners were jockeying for power in advance of China’s 2012 leadership transition. The incident was still making headlines today, though Gates had already moved on to Japan and is set to culminate his northeast Asian tour in Seoul on Friday.

These are interesting questions. But they distract from the main point.

In China, symbolism speaks louder than words, and the official message is strictly controlled. The country’s communist leadership is by no means monolithic, but the question of who exactly scheduled the flight hardly matters, given that those involved hold the keys to the country’s most advanced weapons. And not only did they time the flight when Gates was in town, but they invited a posse of bloggers to witness it and disseminate videos for China’s legions of internet users.

So what exactly did this domestic audience see? In Chinese eyes, the test flight could only be perceived as a smack in the face, a bellicose telegram aimed at the United States. Images of the sleek black jet conveyed far more meaning than the bland platitudes officials read to the media following meetings. To citizens, and particularly to the country’s many nationalists, this message made perfect sense.

For decades, U.S. military superiority has been the bedrock of Washington-Beijing relations. The United States has stationed formidable brawn in China’s backyard — aircraft carriers in the Pacific, bases in South Korea and Japan, and advanced weapons able to decimate a Chinese military that until recently could barely fly, swim or dive.

As a result, China has long played a subordinate role in its own region. It has been forced to accept the American military sales to Taiwan, an island that Beijing regards as its own. It has had to tolerate U.S. naval surveillance off its coast (the Pentagon insists that this shouldn’t be a concern given that its ships operate in international waters). And it has had to swallow America’s “interference” in territorial disputes in the oil-rich South China Sea.

The U.S. security presence has undoubtedly contributed to Asia’s success, and is welcomed by many in the region. But according to popular Chinese lore, it’s a remnant of “the century of national humiliation,” a grim period that began in the colonial era when imperial powers subjugated China, fomenting disorder and addicting millions to British-supplied opium in an effort to reverse China’s 19th century trade surplus with the West.

In this view, after enduring decades of poverty, China has amassed record financial reserves and has constructed history’s most powerful export machine. China has regained its rightful power in the world. And now, the United States — reeling under government debt, nursing a financial crisis hangover, and suffering the stress of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — has arrived to plead for detente. A humbled America is hoping to sweet talk China into averting a costly arms race.

The message of the J-20 flight: too late.

David Case directs GlobalPost Research. He has lived in Bangkok, Jakarta, Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh City.

You can follow David on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport

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