China is flexing its muscles as an arms exporter with a growing array of indigenous weaponry, offering something for most budgets in the global arms bazaar and revealing its wider ambitions to strategic rivals and watchful neighbors.
As a new leadership was anointed in Beijing and the world looked on to see what direction it might take over the next decade, military officials from Africa to Southeast Asia were shopping for Chinese weapons in the country’s south.
Change has come fast in China, now the world’s second-largest economy, and with its rise has come a new sense of military assertiveness, with a growing budget to develop modern warfare equipment, including aircraft carriers and drones.
All the signs point to newly named Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping (習近平), who is slated to become president next March, continuing China’s aggressive military modernization.
Now the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, China laid out its wares last week at an air show in Zhuhai, a palm-lined port between Macau and Hong Kong that becomes a heavily armed industry showcase every other November.
In the 10 years to last year, China’s foreign military sales have increased 95 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Among dozens of items shown publicly for the first time last week were Chinese attack helicopters, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and air defenses. As usual, the exhibit halls contained everything from shoulder-fired weapons to cruise missiles.
“China is getting more aggressive in the export market as its own industrial base develops,” said Doug Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It looks at Russia and the US as examples of how you can use the export arena to help develop your own industries.”
Between them, Washington and Moscow account for more than half of the world’s US$410 billion in arms sales, but opportunities abound for China as the US looks to cut its military spending to manage its mounting debt.
Still, US spending dwarfs that of China. In its annual report on the Chinese military, the Pentagon in May estimated Beijing’s total spending this year would be between US$120 billion and US$180 billion. Washington will spend US$614 billion on its military this year. Most of Beijing’s trade is done with small states outside of the EU, which like the US, put China under an arms embargo after its massacre of Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Myanmar are among China’s biggest clients, with aircraft at the top of their shopping lists, SIPRI data shows.
Beijing does not release official figures for arms sales. Foreign estimates put the figure at about US$2 billion last year.
The undisputed star of the show last week was a sleek, quarter-sized model of China’s second stealth fighter, dubbed the J-31 by most Western analysts. Although officially a concept plane, it bore what industry bible Aviation Week called a “striking resemblance” to a mystery jet that flew briefly at the end of last month.
Photographs of the jet leaked, or were orchestrated to look like a leak, and emerged on the Internet days before last week’s 18th Party Congress and leadership handover, and confirmed China’s place in a select club of stealth-capable nations.