Why you should care

China is emerging as a fast-growing supplier of affordable, high-tech weapons systems to countries facing sanctions or restrictions from the West. 

Models donning metallic outfits and ill-fitting red baseball caps posed at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, in November 2018. But the star attractions were the newest arsenal of Chinese weapons systems on display: from mine-clearing robots and high-speed unmanned helicopters to stealth drones and radar protection technology for tanks. In all, deals worth $21 billion were struck. And the show was just one sign of China’s growing clout in a field traditionally dominated by the West, Russia and Israel: high-tech military equipment.

China’s rapid expansion over the past two decades into Africa, Latin America and across Asia has relied on its growing economic resources and has taken the form of heavy investments, funding and infrastructure projects. Its military exports were largely bare-bones equipment. Now, the world’s second-largest economy is fast positioning itself as an attractive supplier of relatively affordable high-tech military hardware to an increasing number of emerging economies facing sanctions or restrictions from the West.

The country’s arms sales to Africa grew by 55 percent between 2012 and 2017 compared to the previous five-year period, totaling $273 million in 2017. Of those sales, 42 percent of exports landed in North Africa — a region long plagued by U.S. and European arms embargoes and a more general reluctance from these suppliers to do business. Today, 80 percent of trainer jets across Africa are the Chinese-made K-8 planes, and with advancements in China’s aviation industry, particularly the development of an indigenous jet engine, Chinese aircraft are becoming more attractive to African customers. China is now marketing its indigenous, armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to potential buyers in Egypt and Nigeria.

The number of suppliers of more advanced equipment is increasing, which improves the bargaining position.

Pieter Wezeman, SIPRI

Closer to home, China in March 2018 announced a deal to sell Pakistan a large-scale optical tracking system used to accelerate the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads. It was the first example of China exporting sensitive technology. Pakistan is facing restrictions from the U.S. on weapons sales because of differences on terrorism and Afghanistan. State-owned China South Industries Group is aggressively pitching its mine-clearing laser gun to international customers such as Myanmar, which already relies on China for 68 percent of its weapons because of E.U. and U.S. sanctions.

And Venezuela, which imports 23 percent of its weapons from China, showed off a cache of new Chinese-built military vehicles at a parade in July 2018. China is also pitching a new generation of laser weapons to Venezuela. These include the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp.’s LW-30 laser defense system and China Shipbuilding Industry Corp.’s vehicle-mounted laser weapon, both launched at the Zhuhai Air Show in November 2018.

“The one advantage that African countries, and for that matter any other country that considers China as an acceptable arms supplier, will have is that the number of suppliers of more advanced equipment is increasing, which improves the bargaining position,” says Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers and Military Expenditure Programme.

Some of China’s earliest successes in selling high-tech military equipment came earlier this decade, in the Middle East, with drones. The U.S. has strict rules on who it can sell UAVs to, and several Middle Eastern nations have had requests to America turned down. So, “China stepped in and offered its alternatives,” says Wezeman. Since 2014, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and Iraq have all bought military drones from China. These UAVs have been deployed in wars against ISIS and in Yemen.

But the country’s willingness to sell weapons systems to virtually anyone gives China a distinct edge in carving out a niche for itself in the global arms market, and its ability to deliver high-tech machines at cheaper rates than competitors also attracts potential buyers. China’s most advanced UAV, the CH-5 Rainbow, costs half as much as the $16.9 million U.S.-made Reaper. China’s base model can be acquired for just $1 million. Four of China’s Type 054A frigates were recently ordered by Pakistan at a unit cost of $250 million, compared to a price tag of $466 million for the similarly sized French-built La Fayette model. Speaking to the Global Times newspaper, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpieces, Beijing-based military analyst Wei Dongxu claimed in November that the country’s new HD-1 supersonic missile, known as an aircraft carrier killer, would hit the market at a significantly lower price than existing products. This includes undercutting the $2.75 million BrahMos missile, developed by Russia and India.

The CH-5 Rainbow, China’s latest “Killer Drone.”

None of this would have been possible, of course, had China not made significant advances in developing high-tech military equipment in the first place. One such segment of the market is naval technology, where China has made rapid strides in large domestic-built craft, such as corvettes, frigates and submarines. Once reliant on Russia for high-end technology, China is now developing heavily customized models of weapons systems specifically for the export market, says Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Pakistan’s four Chinese frigates on order are being loaded with Chinese radar and missile tech, bucking the trend of installing U.S. technology on cheap vessels. Thailand has ordered a $411 million Yuan-class submarine from China to be delivered by 2023.

China is also developing cutting-edge maritime weapons systems to complement these ships. In January, photos emerged showing an electromagnetic rail gun adorning the front of a Chinese assault ship, strongly hinting that China developed the cutting-edge, electromagnetic weapon before the rest of the world. The gun replaces the need for explosives by using a magnetic field to project shells with greater speed, distance and accuracy.

Such breakthroughs promise to accelerate China’s naval tech export market even further. The need for more cost-effective solutions to naval needs will only rise, says Koh. “This offers room for China to grow its naval export prospects worldwide, with the most plausible exception of North America and Western Europe,” he says.

China still faces a struggle to sell high-tech weapons to countries that aren’t affected by restrictions from the West. In Latin America, outside Venezuela, for instance, China’s high-end military hardware hasn’t found much traction yet, says Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, an independent defense analyst. Much of the Chinese trade there “is in support equipment of a low technology level,” he says.

But there are other areas — such as artificial intelligence — where China’s heavy recent investments mean it could offer cutting-edge military products. “[Artificial intelligence] and its application in military purposes is something we need to look out for,” says Pratnashree Basu, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Kolkata.

Its rivals are already beginning to keep watch. In January, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in a report warned about China’s sale of drones to the Middle East. With China’s influence in the high-tech military space only growing, that won’t be the last such report.

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