An unidentified plane flies near disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the air over the East China Sea, in this handout photo taken by Japan Air Self-Defence Force and released by Joint Staff of the Defence Ministry of Japan September 9, 2013.

China has successfully tested its first unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), according to state media.

The test flight of a drone called Lijian, or "sharp sword" in English, reportedly lasted nearly 20 minutes. Photos taken at the scene show a delta-wing, single-engine drone in flight around 1pm on 21 November from an undisclosed flight centre in southwest China.

China Daily claimed the test flight made China the fourth country in the world "capable of putting a stealth drone into the sky" after France, Britain and the US, adding: "The successful flight shows the nation has again narrowed the air-power disparity between itself and Western nations".

Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told South China Morning Post that Lijian is designed for reconnaissance, combat and tracking by air Force and navy teams.

"The drone, which is capable of flying undetected at high altitudes while providing high-resolution video and other intelligence, will let maritime departments keep abreast of developments in the East and South China seas and will help Beijing make accurate decisions when dealing with territorial disputes with its neighbors," Xu added.

Wang Ya'nan, deputy editor-in-chief at Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told China Daily that Lijian is ideal for use at sea.

"The drone can be used for reconnaissance and an air-to-ground strike, but more importantly, it has a huge potential for aircraft carriers," Wang said.

Beijing's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning is a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine, which went into service in September 2012 but is not expected to be fully operational for several years, according to Business Insider.

The drone used in the test flight is equipped with the RD-93, a Russian turbofan engine which was originally designed for a fighter jet, making it relatively large for a drone.

"Using the RD-93 compromises the stealth capability of the Sharp Sword, but the situation will be changed after our domestically developed engine that is specifically designed for drones enters production," Wang said.

Lijian is developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute and manufactured by Hongdu Aviation Industry Group. Both belong to Aviation Industry Corp of China, the nation's leading aircraft manufacturer.

The operational design of the craft is similar to the US' Northrop Grumman X-47 series and the French nEUROn, according to military observers.

The recent dispute between China and Japan over the East China Sea Islands involved drone sightings. A UCAV was spotted by Japan near the islands in September, which flew back and forth from the northwest, and had led Japan to dispatch fighter jets into the airspace around the islands.