Recent public disclosures, including the revealing article that ran in this magazine about China rolling out its first known stealth aircraft (AW&ST Jan. 3, p. 18), will keep military strategists and interested observers in the West busy for a long time trying to accurately establish the full implications—accurately being the operative word. U.S. intelligence knew about the J-20, but not that it would begin taxi tests in December.

The twin-engine, single-seat aircraft bears a striking resemblance to the F-22. Moreover, it is considerably larger than the U.S.’s most advanced air superiority fighter, implying long range, a generous internal fuel capacity and heavy weapons loads. Still to be determined is whether the aircraft is a prototype or a technology demonstrator.

What we do know is that China attaches enormous importance to science and technology—it is educating many more engineers and scientists than any Western country, including the U.S.—and it is funneling huge amounts of money into defense. So it is not surprising that some people are unnerved by the idea that China is well down the path toward achieving a new level of technical maturity and military capability.

Some perspective is in order—both for the alarmists and those inclined to minimize the implications of the J-20.

For starters, it’s one thing to develop a prototype or technology demonstrator and test the aircraft. It is an entirely different matter to take such a design and perfect it into a multi-mission stealthy aircraft that can be manufactured and is as advanced as, say, the F-22 or F-35. Indeed, getting to that point will require a highly sophisticated sensor suite and advanced engines. The Chinese have tended to lag behind in airframe development. Moreover, producing a true stealth aircraft is notoriously difficult. Current estimates are that the J-20 may enter production in 8-10 years, barring technical setbacks.

Also, China has the world’s second-largest economy, and at the current rate of growth, there can be little doubt it eventually will surpass that of the U.S. As China evolves into a global power, wielding more influence economically and in international affairs, the rest of the world should expect Beijing to continue to pursue its goal of building a 21st-century military. Like it or not, it is going to happen, and two decades of effort are starting to show results.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that China’s leaders, unlike North Korea’s, generally are not prone to reckless, self-destructive behavior. Keep in mind that China has possessed a nuclear arsenal for decades and has exercised restraint, even during periods of heightened international tensions—again, unlike its bellicose neighbor to the East. The challenge for the U.S. now and in the future will be figuring out how to engage a future superpower constructively. Doing so is both essential and doable.

That is not to say the U.S. can blithely ignore or marginalize the rate at which China is building military capability. As the Navy’s top intelligence official concedes, “We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery and initial operational capability of Chinese weapons systems.” Of course, China’s weapons modernization goes far beyond just stealth aircraft. There is the DF-21D, an anti-aircraft ballistic missile, a broad range of unmanned systems, command and control devices to target ballistic missiles, small bombs that can be carried internally on a stealth fighter, and ships suitable for a blue water navy—all within the context of virtually unlimited money for such endevors. In short, China appears to have identified all of the disconnects between its strategic ambitions and military resources, and is proceeding rapidly to fill those gaps. Even more of a concern to intelligence officials than China’s kinetic weapons is its non-kinetic threat such as electronic attack and cyberwarfare.

Regardless of whether the J-20 is a prototype or technology demonstrator, it is one more sign of growing expertise, an indication that it is starting to realize its ambition to counter adversaries across a range of domains. Will China flex its growing military muscle when Beijing feels its strategic interests are being challenged—strategic interests that may be in direct conflict with those of the U.S.? We cannot rule out that possibility, if not probability, whether it is Taiwan, North Korea, their “near seas” or competition for strategic resources anywhere in the world.

For China, balancing international interests with nationalistic sentiments—including the pride that comes with increased respect on much of the world stage—will be difficult. But its leaders will need to figure out how to navigate that minefield or risk conflict and put at risk much of what the country has built.

If there is a lesson in this latest eye-opener from China, it is this: the U.S. absolutely must maintain robust investment in research and development in both kinetic and non-kinetic weapons, not to mention adequate spending on intelligence-gathering tools and specialists. While that will not be easy, given the tremendous pressure on the defense budget, the U.S. has no choice. The alternative is to be surprised not just by the latest weapon system China chooses to unveil, but in how China chooses to leverage its arsenal as an extension of foreign policy in five or 10 years. The White House and Congress would be well advised to ponder that eventuality as they take the paring knife to government spending.