ZHUHAI - China showed its Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter in public for the first time on Tuesday, opening the country’s biggest meeting of aircraft makers and buyers with a show of its military clout.

Airshow China, in the southern city of Zhuhai, offers Beijing an opportunity to demonstrate its ambitions in civil aerospace and to underline its growing capability in defence. China is set to overtake the US as the world’s top aviation market in the next decade.

Two J-20 jets, Zhuhai’s headline act, swept over dignitaries, hundreds of spectators and industry executives gathered at the show’s opening ceremony in a flypast that barely exceeded a minute, generating a deafening roar that was met with gasps and applause and set off car alarms in a parking lot.

Experts say China has been refining designs for the J-20, first glimpsed by planespotters in 2010, in the hope of narrowing a military technology gap with the United States. President Xi Jinping has pushed to toughen the armed forces as China takes a more assertive stance in Asia, particularly in the South China and East China seas.

“It is clearly a big step forward in Chinese combat capability,” said Bradley Perrett of Aviation Week, a veteran China watcher.

State-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) was also bullish on China’s appetite for new civilian planes, estimating the market would need 6,865 new aircraft worth $930 billion over the next 20 years.

The COMAC forecast - similar to long-term outlooks from well-established rivals Boeing Co and Airbus Group - said China would make up almost a fifth of global demand for close to 40,000 planes over the next two decades.

Beijing and Malaysia sign deals on navy vessels

Malaysia has agreed to buy four Chinese naval vessels and pledged with Beijing to handle South China Sea disputes bilaterally, a Chinese official said on Tuesday, in what could be China’s latest counter to US influence in the region.

The vessels are known as littoral mission ships, small craft that operate close to shore. Two will be built in China and two in Malaysia, Malaysian state media reported after a meeting between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his visiting counterpart Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Last week, Malaysia’s defence ministry said in a posting on social media that the country would sign a contract to purchase patrol vessels from China during Najib’s week-long visit that began on Sunday, but the post was later removed.

The move marks Malaysia’s first significant defence deal with China at a time of rising tension in the South China Sea.

“Leaders of the two sides agreed to further advance the proper settlement of the South China Sea issue with dialogue through a bilateral channel,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People where Li and Najib met.

“Obviously the launching of naval cooperation between the two sides is significant for our bilateral ties. It’s a reflection of the very high level, mutual political trust between our two countries,” Liu said.

He gave no other details on the deal. Littoral mission ships can be equipped with a helicopter flight deck and carry missiles. They are primarily used for coastal security, maritime patrol and surveillance, but can also be deployed for disaster relief and search and rescue operations.

China claims most of the South China Sea as its territory. But Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have rival claims to parts of the waterway, which commands strategic sea lanes which carry some $5 trillion worth of trade a year.

Najib’s visit follows that of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who announced the country’s “separation” from the United States and signed a raft of memoranda of understanding for Chinese investment in the country.

The push to strengthen China ties comes after July lawsuits filed by the US Justice Department implicating Najib in a money-laundering scandal. Najib has denied any wrongdoing and said Malaysia will cooperate in the international investigations.

“I think there’s a mischaracterisation here. There’s no such thing as using our financial muscle to improve ties,” Liu said in response to a reporter’s question on the issue.

Both nations also signed deals for collaboration to build rail projects in Malaysia, which included the 55 billion ringgit ($13.2 billion) East Coast Rail Line.

Najib told Malaysian state news agency Bernama that both countries had made a historic achievement by signing 14 agreements totalling 143.64 billion ringgit ($34.4 billion).