BEIJING // The US defence secretary yesterday put a brave face on a visit that will be remembered for China's blatant demonstration of its military assertiveness during his time here.
A day after the People's Liberation Army tested its new J-20 stealth aircraft - a flight the authorities made little attempt to conceal - the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, insisted that his visit had been "very productive and set the stage for taking the military-to-military relationship to the next level".
Standing on a section of the Great Wall beneath characters glorifying the former leader Mao Zedong, Mr Gates tried to downplay concerns that the Chinese military was acting independently of the country's civilian leadership.
That appeared to be the case on Tuesday when the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, initially seemed unaware during talks that the test had taken place.
"What came across to me was that both the civilian and the military leadership seemed determined to carry this relationship further, and build upon it," said Mr Gates, who yesterday also visited China's nuclear warfare command centre.
"Are there those who have issues with it? Possibly. But I certainly didn't meet any of them on my trip, and I'm very encouraged going forward."
But observers said Mr Gates had little to show for several days of discussions with Mr Hu, the vice-president, Xi Jinping, the foreign and defence ministers and other leaders.
The visit saw China protest again about American arms sales to Taiwan, while Mr Gates emphasised the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Ringing in Mr Gates' ears yesterday as he left for Tokyo, the second stop on a three-nation regional tour, were commentaries from state-run media saying the US would have to accept a new regional order in which China played a bigger role.
The stealth jet and the "carrier-killer" missile that the US has said China has developed are "changing the strategic power balance", the Global Times asserted.
Accusing the US of taking for granted "its right to exert absolute control over the world's skies and oceans", the newspaper said Washington "cannot rule alone".
While Beijing insisted the timing of the stealth test was unrelated to Mr Gates' visit, the Chinese military may have been sending "a strong message to Mr Gates that we've become much stronger than you thought", suggested Ding Xueliang, a professor and foreign affairs analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The timing of the test, he said, could have been "intended to warn the US not to look down on the Chinese military potential".
While Mr Gates remained upbeat in public, Mr Ding said he would have been "very upset" by events during his visit.
"When he came here, he received this signal," he said. "He will come back to Washington, DC, with a lot of worries on his mind, and these will be carried to his successor and have a big impact on the next two or three years' relations between China and the US."
The tour by Mr Gates, who has said he will step down this year, also includes a visit to South Korea. Mr Gates' trip comes ahead of a summit in Washington next week between Mr Hu and the US president, Barack Obama.