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An aircraft that is reported to be a Chinese stealth fighter is seen in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in this picture taken Jan. 7, 2011.

Kyodo/Reuters

Chinese President Hu Jintao confirmed the country had on Tuesday conducted its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet, which could narrow the nation's military gap with the United States, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said after talks with Mr. Hu.

Mr. Gates said Mr. Hu told him that the maiden test-flight of the advanced J-20 fighter jet prototype was not timed to coincide with Mr. Gates's visit and had been planned earlier.

"I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that's where we left it," Mr. Gates told reporters.

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Beforehand, the test-flight of the fighter jet, which could potentially evade detection by foes, in the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu had been widely reported on Chinese Internet blogs and online news sites.

They showed pictures of a fighter plane in flight, and some offered what were cast as running accounts of the J-20 stealth jet fighter taking off after midday for a short flight from an airport in Chengdu.

The website of the Global Times, a popular Chinese newspaper owned by the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's main paper, featured a brief report headlined: "J-20 first flight successful".

It published a link to what it said were pictures of the flight.

The announcement of a successful test flight for the advanced fighter came while Mr. Gates was visiting Beijing, seeking to improve often tense military ties.

In recent days, Chinese websites and some popular newspapers, which can come under a heavy grip of censorship, have carried many reports and pictures claiming to show the stealth fighter being tested on the ground.

But the government had been silent about the fighter until Mr. Hu's remarks to Mr. Gates.

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The latest pictures may heighten concern about China's military build-up, including possible deployment in 2011 of its first aircraft carrier and a new anti-ship ballistic missile seen as a threat to U.S. aircraft carriers.

Some analysts have said that the J-20 photos, if authentic, were a strong indicator that China was making faster-than-expected progress in developing a rival to Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor, the world's only operational stealth fighter designed to evade detection by radar.

But U.S. Vice-Admiral David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, has said deployment of the J-20 was years away.

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