“China has stood up,” said John Pike, director of Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.org, an expert on industry strategy.
Only the US has successfully produced more than one stealth jet and the challenges facing China’s less experienced developers are undoubtedly immense.
The unveiling also served as a reminder to its neighbors of China’s growing clout as tensions rise over rival claims for territory in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
“China is doing this as part of a political equation,” said Robert Hewson, editor of IHS Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons. “It has had a rapidly staged coming out, but I am surprised to see it here so soon.”
By mixing domestic and international messages, the model also filled a void left by the absence of top Chinese government officials distracted by the transition in Beijing.
The business end of the show is about present-day realities. After relying heavily on Russian, and to a lesser extent Israeli, technology in the 1990s, China is pushing exports of home-grown equipment to expand its influence in areas like Africa, where it is busy buying land and forging new alliances.
“The Chinese used to simply produce cheap knockoffs of their basic Russian equipment. They have made very considerable advances, but still have problems, particularly with engines,” said Simon Wezeman, senior researcher at SIPRI.
“On some technology, they are now competitive on technology with European arms exports and very competitive on price,” he said.
China has sold defense systems and co-developed a derivative of a Russian fighter with Pakistan and done smaller deals with African countries. There is also interest from Latin America.
Western analysts say China has a reputation for selling basic, but reliable equipment, with relatively few questions asked about its use, a key selling point.
However, the range of products on display in Zhuhai is both increasing and gradually moving up in value, while remaining a decade or two behind the most advanced US equipment.
For the first time at Zhuhai, China showed an export version of a long-range surface-to-air missile, the truck-mounted FD-2000 and a Predator-style unmanned aerial vehicle called the Wing Loong.
There was also a focus on systems that build relationships, such as the L-15 trainer, which won its first export deal to an unidentified country at the show.
Admittedly, China’s other reputation for copying what it cannot make is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
A parlor game among delegates is to tick off the similarities between Chinese systems and foreign platforms.
“When you come and see these aircraft, you relate them to what you have seen before. The K-8 is a Hawk, the J-10 a Eurofighter, the L-15 an Aermacchi M-346,” said an officer with an African air force delegation, asking not to be identified. “That is why some people don’t want to send their planes here. You come back in five years and it is called a J-something.”
Organizers said a record 650 companies from 38 countries showed up to present exhibits at the ninth Zhuhai show.
A few meters and a Chinese wall separate the military part of the show and Western aerospace suppliers striking deals with China’s fledgling civil aerospace industry.
Last week’s flying displays included a surprise debut of the Z-10 months after US company United Technologies admitted selling software that helped Beijing develop its first modern military attack helicopter.