Zhuhai [China]: From 6-11 November 2018, Zhuhai in southern China becomes an even more bustling metropolis than usual. This is because the port city plays host to the biennial Airshow China, commonly known as the Zhuhai Air Show, which is now in its 12th edition.
This event has grown into the largest defense and aerospace exhibition in the Asia-Pacific region by far. It easily eclipses other major air shows such as the Singapore Airshow or Seoul ADEX. One reason for this is that it is endorsed by the Chinese government, State Council and Central Military Commission,and is supported by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Sponsors of the show have risen from seven to 13, as more want to cash in on the event’s success.
Military and aircraft aficionados flock to this event every two years simply because it is one of the only real chances to see PLA Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft, helicopters, radars and other PLA equipment.
The organizers said: “Since the first air show in 1996, it has developed into a mega international event featuring trade, professional knowledge and visual enjoyment.” They also describe it as one of the five top air shows around the world.
As to be expected, the organizers paid gushing tribute to the national leader in its preamble, stating, “With the in-depth development of the Belt and Road initiative and civil-military integration at this new starting point in history, this air show is under the guidance of Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era to further encourage innovation.”
Interestingly, the exhibition has expanded far beyond its original remit of being an air show since the first edition in 1996, taking in a broad spectrum of unmanned systems, missiles, rockets, space technology, land vehicles and much more besides.
Indeed, there are 770 exhibitors from 43 countries in 2018registered, the largest total to date. The show is displaying more than 150 aircraft, including those from the PLAAF and Pakistan Air Force. However, a Saudi Arabian aerobatic team failed to show.
The scale of the show is borne out by further statistics: the indoor exhibition area has expanded by 22% to more than 100,000m². Extensive outdoor exhibits occupy a further 400,000m², while an outdoor maneuver area for vehicles rose in size to 110,000m².
ANI visited the show on the eve of opening day, when feverish last-minute preparations were taking place before VIPs arrived for the official inauguration ceremony on 6 November. As with the 2016 iteration of the show, J-20 stealth fighters are expected to fly during the ceremony, although this year their demonstration is expected to be longer than their brief cameo last time. The J-20s are not expected to reappear until Sunday,when the PLAAF will put on a special display to celebrate its anniversary.
Kelvin Wong, senior analyst for aerospace, defense and security at the defense publisher IHS Markit, told ANI, “The Airshow China is the largest defense exhibition or event of its kind in Asia-Pacific. So it offers the world a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of the typically opaque Chinese defense industry and the PLA.”
Referring to the indigenous technology on show, Wong agreed that it is progressing forward in leaps and bounds. “With each iteration of the China air show, you can see the equipment getting increasingly advanced and sophisticated. And obviously with the increasing number of international customers acquiring Chinese-made products such as unmanned aerial vehicles, I think, yes, China is climbing up the ranks of the global defense industry.”
While the air show attracts numerous locals from around China, there is a significant group of foreigners who attend as well. Western aerospace companies such as Bell Helicopter, Rolls-Royce, Airbus, General Electric and Safran are all present. Of course, these companies are not permitted to sell defense-related technologies to China because of European Union and US embargoes. Nevertheless, there is considerable cooperation between Chinese concerns and overseas firms, one example being Airbus Helicopters and the Aviation Corporation of China (AVIC). The two are currently collaborating on the AC352 helicopter, which is a Chinese version of the 7-ton-class Airbus H175.
With China a keen buyer of Russian technology, including recent deliveries of S-400 air defense missile systems and Su-35 fighters, the Russians are very well represented too with companies such as the United Aircraft Company and Russian Helicopters.
One must not forget Chinese commercial aviation too, with COMAC showing a prototype of the CR929 wide-body airliner. The Chinese-designed and built ARJ21 jet is also on static display.
China is still not an easy place for visitors, however, with language a formidable problem for foreigners when catching taxis, shopping at a convenience store or even checking into a hotel. Hotels are often not aimed at the overseas visitor, with concrete slab-like beds and Chinese menus. To further complicate things, new government-imposed regulations mean that many hotels are not accepting credit cards from foreign banks unless they are affiliated with the Chinese-based Union Pay network. Even those wishing to use a vending machine to buy a cold drink would have found it impossible without using apps such as WeChat, yet another inconvenience for visitors.
Those staying in accommodation other than regular hotels must also register at their local police station within 24 hours of arrival, a rule being enforced more fastidiously among Chinese paranoia about foreign influence. Immigration clearance also involves full scanning of the visitor’s ten fingerprints plus face, meaning foreigners are now fully searchable in the country’s massive database. Naturally, this allows China’s extensive network of facial recognition cameras the ability to track people with ease.
Security at the show site and at the nearby Zhuhai international Airport remain tight, especially so when the opening day rolls around, with numerous police present. However, one of the most frustrating factors about staying in China is the inability to visit one’s favorite websites due to the ever-present and oppressive firewall blocking access. Even VNPs are being seriously targeted, making communication with the outside world difficult.
After braving the 75-90-minute ride from the center of Zhuhai, those visiting must contend with screeds of people, even during the so-called trade show when business deals and networking are occurring. Thus, it is not uncommon to see children, the elderly and the infirm on these days, something unheard of at most other defense trade shows. The final two public days are another experience altogether, as thousands of citizens flock to the show to watch the flying displays, look at the exhibits and sample the wares.
As previously mentioned, this air show has expanded into many other realms. Thus, in 2016 for the first time a demonstration of land armored vehicles took place. This is being repeated in 2018, as dozens of vehicles from companies such as North China Industries (NORINC) run their tanks and other heavy vehicles over obstacles in the hopes of adding new customers who will be attracted by price and availability.
Wong from IHS Markit, a return visitor to the show, concluded, “This is probably the only defense exhibition in Asia where the exhibitors aren’t shy to show off lethal weaponry. Probably many of them will remain as conceptual models and prototypes, nonetheless it’s nice to see what the Chinese are thinking.”
The organizers expected nearly 200 military and political trade delegations at the Zhuhai Air Show, as well as 130,000 visitors during the trade days alone. In fact, it is not uncommon to see North Koreans or military personnel from dictatorships and military governments attending the show.
When the dust settles on the air show, new deals will surely have been signed with countries around the world, some of them despotic. When it comes to selling weaponry, China does not abide by the same degree of ethic standards as others do, surely one of the attractions for buyers.