China shows off jets once shrouded in secrecy in clear display of military might

There were notable gasps from the crowd and a scramble to grab cameras when the first J-20 jets roared across the sky.

Four cutting-edge stealth fighter jets soared in perfect unison, the sound of the engines deafening.

It was a display designed to grab attention. These jets, previously shrouded in secrecy, have now been displayed for the Chinese public and the world to see.

They were arguably the headliner at China's National Airshow hosted in Zhuhai in southern China this week.

The event is a celebration of all things aviation, from the more basic to the battle ready.

As well as exhibitors from across the industry, there was a display from China's aerobatics team, demonstrations of high-tech drones and a flyby of the country's first homegrown passenger jet.

It was a highly militarised event at a time when the world increasingly fears what this military could do.

In the crowds was Yue Gang, a retired colonel who served for more than 20 years in the Chinese armed forces.

He summarised the sentiment of many here - one of pride in how the military has developed and confidence in what it can achieve.

"China is showing the world it's a really powerful country," he said.

"It means we can not only defend our national territory but also defend our national interests outside our country, because China's national interests are expanding to the world outside."

Many fear those "interests" include China potentially attempting to take control of Taiwan, the self-governing Island it sees as its own. Doing so is a longheld dream of President Xi.

It is an issue at the forefront this week as Greg Hands, the UK trade minister, visits Taiwan, the first British minister to do so since the pandemic.

While he emphasised the talks were about trade, any foreign visits that hint at Taiwanese autonomy are seen by China as highly provocative.

It seems to have drawn a response.

On Tuesday, China sent more fighter jets towards Taiwan than at any time since the summer: 31 crossed the "median line" - the unofficial maritime boarder.

Tensions are the highest they have been for some time.

The family of jets used in these flights was on display in Zhuhai. It is unusual to see them this close up. Being allowed to do so was perhaps a message in itself.

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Whether China would actually undertake such an invasion is uncertain but there were plenty of hints at this show about its preparedness - from the new amphibious vehicles to the simulation of how an invasion of an unnamed mountainous island could look.

The message China wanted to land felt crystal clear: theirs is a military modernised and transformed, able to fight an international war if necessary.