Chinese arms exports explode

Beijing :According to figures released on 22 February by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Chinese arms exports have jumped dramatically.

Chinese weapons exports ballooned 88% in the 2011-15 period compared to 2006-10. This compared with a 14% rise in the overall volume of international arms sales in the same timeframe. This represents major growth for China, although admittedly the country is progressing from a relatively low base compared to traditional arms-exporting states like the USA, Russia, France or Germany.

From 2011-15, China still only accounted for 5.9% of global arms sales, although this was much higher than the 3.6% share it had in the preceding five-year period. Especially important, along the way China has dramatically leapfrogged France, Germany and the United Kingdom into third place on the sellers’ list.

SIPRI calculated that China sold major arms to 37 states in 2011-15, of which 75% went to the Asia and Oceania region. The region saw something of an explosion in Chinese weapon imports, with purchases 139% higher than in 2006-10. Pakistan led the way amongst the regional buyers with 35% of purchases, followed by Bangladesh (20%) and Myanmar (16%).

Important Pakistan purchases directly from China that are listed in SIPRI’s database include: Type 041 submarines (x8), air-to-air missiles (PL-12, PL-5E), anti-radiation missiles (LD-10), anti-ship missiles (C-802, CM-400AKG), surface-to-air missiles (FM-90, LY-80), guided bombs (e.g. LS-3, LS-6-500, LT-2), ZDK-03 airborne early warning aircraft (x4), Z-10 attack helicopters (x3) and torpedoes (Yu-4, SET-65E).

As well as Asia, China has also seen significant expansion in sales to Africa, accounting for 13% of the continent’s purchases, which was even higher than the USA’s 11% share. Nevertheless, Russia and France led the way ahead of China. Among Chinese sales were five unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) to Nigeria, which are being used in the fight against Boko Haram. However, in terms of Sub-Saharan Africa, China netted 22% of weapon sales there from 2011-15.

SIPRI summarized China’s performance as follows: “China is increasingly capable of producing its own advanced weapons and has become less dependent on arms imports, which decreased by 25% between 2006-10 and 2011-15. While in the early 2000s China was by far the largest importer, it dropped to third place in 2011-15.”

China’s imports are focused in key areas such as large transport aircraft and helicopters, and engines for aircraft, vehicles and ships. SIPRI highlighted that, in fact, engines accounted for 30% of Chinese imports in 2011-15. Additionally, last year Beijing signed major orders for S-400 air defense systems and 24 Su-35 fighters from Russia, “indicating that China is also not yet self-sufficient in those categories,” according to SIPRI.

China was also the third largest importer of weapons, scooping up 7.1% of arms exports in 2011-15. Some 59% of these imports emanated from Russia, 15% from France and 14% from Ukraine.

Perhaps surprising is France’s position on this list, considering a Western arms embargo against China. France’s appearance in the database is somewhat misleading, however, as it is due to China’s indigenous manufacture of Crotale (HQ-7/HQ-7B) surface-to-air missile systems, Z-9 (based on the Airbus Helicopters AS365 Dauphin) and Z-8 helicopters (based on the Aerospatiale SA-321) and diesel engines for ships (e.g. SEMT Pielstick PA6-STC16 engines in Type 056 corvettes).

ANI asked Norbert Ducrot, president and CEO of Airbus Helicopters China, about this issue and he said, “As long as the embargo is in place, we can’t sell any military equipment. We can sell civil equipment and this is what we’re doing.” One could claim that China is building the Z-9 under license, and therefore the helicopter manufacturer is not guilty of breaking the embargo.

Germany is also listed as having sold 4,500 Deutz BF8L diesel engines from 1982 onwards for use in Chinese armored vehicles, eight MTU 1163 engines for Type 051C destroyers, and 20 MTU 956 engines for Type 052D destroyers. These are all license-built within China. Another interesting case is that of license-built Cummins diesel engines commonly powering trucks fielded by the PLA. This area of license-built, dual-use components fitted in PLA vehicles, vessels and aircraft is a rather murky one.

To help develop arms sales even further, China had a significant presence at the recent Singapore Airshow, held from 16-21 February. Twelve Chinese exhibitors were there, and although their presence was nowhere near as large as the USA, France or Singapore, for example, Chinese manufacturers are now very much a permanent fixture at regional defense shows.

However, enormous question marks remain over the openness and transparency of Chinese sellers. Take the case of the “disappearing” UCAV at the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) stand at the Singapore Airshow, for example.

Early on the opening day of the airshow, the company removed a scale model of the Wing Loong II UCAV from its display. This was the first time for the turboprop-powered unmanned aircraft to be exhibited outside China, although a model of the first-generation Wing Loong I remained in view.

The following is a precis of the conversation ANI had with an official at the CATIC stand.

“You only have one UAV model on display this year?” ANI innocently enquired.

“Yes,” was the response.

“I thought you had two UAV models here,” ANI asked.

“No, we only have one.”

“Didn’t you have two models earlier today?”

“No,” came the assured reply.

“That’s interesting because my colleague took a photo of two UAVs on your display,” as ANI went for the jugular.

The Chinese representative paused less than a heartbeat, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that.”

It is beyond comprehension why Chinese manufacturers routinely lie when talking to media. It is also unclear why Chinese companies have a tendency to show products at the start of a defense exhibition and then quickly remove them. This is a pattern that recurs frequently.

One has to wonder whether Chinese companies treat its customers the same way. Despite offering attractive prices, and often generous payment terms, China is not renowned for its aftermarket support for arms equipment.

However, improvements are occurring as Chinese manufacturers get used to operating on the international stage. Whereas companies rarely offered details or data on equipment – sometimes not even the product name – that it was promoting at defense exhibitions, it now usually supplies brochures. This is definitely progress. Instead of a shrug or dismissive shake of the head, representatives may now invite journalists to take away a handful of brochures to study for themselves.

So, yes, there have been improvements, but Chinese weapon manufacturers remain opaque. Any discussion on whether the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may be using the same weapon system as being proffered for export is quickly extinguished.

At the Singapore Airshow, CATIC displayed several interesting products in model form. One was the Hongdu L-15 Falcon. Normally this is a supersonic advanced jet trainer, but CATIC showed a model of it carrying armaments such as SD-10 and PL-5 air-to-air missiles, a precision-guided bomb and KG600 jamming pod that turn it into a multirole fighter. Interestingly, the L-15 competes against the Russian Yak-130 aircraft internationally, with Yakovlev having helped develop the L-15 design.

Also on show in Singapore was an FC-20 fighter, an export variant of the J-10 that is in PLA Air Force (PLAAF) service. Chinese exporters are most definitely growing in confidence. The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) significantly boosted international sales last year. AVIC announced that sales rose 10% to US$11.5 billion in 2015, of which exports contributed nearly 20% of that figure.

Also new in Singapore was the TL-2 air-to-ground missile that can be launched from the ASN-209, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) not usually armed but which has been sold to Egypt as well as the PLA. The TL-7 anti-ship missile was also new, this weapon being capable of launch from the air, ground or ship. Both the TL-2 and TL-7 missiles were debuting at the Singapore Airshow.

According to SIPRI, India remained the biggest importer of weapons internationally, despite the previous and current governments’ efforts to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers. Delhi accounted for 14% of the world’s arms sales and, alarmingly, imports expanded 90% in 2011-15 compared to the preceding five years, instead of declining as the government would like.

India snapped up 39% of Russia’s total weapons exports from 2011-15, compared to 11% for both China and Vietnam. In fact, India’s imports were three times greater than its regional rivals China and Pakistan. Some 70% of its weapons were acquired from Russia, 14% from the USA and 4.5% from Israel. Importantly, the USA has emerged as a major force in the Indian market, with sales 11 times higher in 2011-15 than they were in 2006-10.

These figures clearly show that Indian manufacturers, most of which are state-owned, are still not able to meet the domestic requirements of the Indian Armed Forces, let alone possess the ability to offer competitive products on the international stage.

India is sharply lagging behind China in development of its indigenous military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, it just does not have suitable or attractive weapon systems to sell on the global market, which is something of an indictment on the government’s efforts to become more self-sufficient. (ANI)