November 20, 2010 in Business

a new arms player

China becoming a competitor in global weapons market
Christopher Bodeen Associated Press
Associated Press photo

An FC-1 Xiaolong fighter jet parks after a demonstration at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, southern China, on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

Copying Russia

Deliveries of ships, submarines and fighter planes from Russia peaked in 2006 and then went into sharp decline. One reason was Russian wariness of Chinese reverse engineering: Stung by China’s flagrant copy of the Su-27 – the J-11 – Russian makers became increasingly reluctant to sell advanced technology to Beijing.

ZHUHAI, China – China is emerging as a competitor in the international arms market, offering increasingly sophisticated fighter jets, missiles and equipment that are beginning to rival Russia and other longtime exporters.

With the same low-cost strategy that worked for toys and electronics, Chinese firms are targeting cost-conscious customers, albeit in an industry still dominated by the United States, Russia, France and Britain.

“China’s share of the global market may never be that big, but it will have a growing niche with poorer countries such as African states,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The Chinese challenge has been on display at this week’s Zhuhai air show, a biannual aviation industry event that wraps up Sunday.

Pilots have given aerial displays of China’s latest-generation J-10 fighter, and exhibition halls are stocked with models and mock-ups from military aircraft maker Aviation Industry Corp. of China.

Sprinkled among the exhibits are a half-dozen flight simulators, highlighting a push to offer not just aircraft but also training and after-sales service.

That all-encompassing approach will be key to further growth as Chinese firms seek to woo buyers for more sophisticated aircraft such as the J-10 and F-8T, which compete directly with products from the West.

“China is building a client base for the future,” said Rob Hewson, London-based editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, who was attending the air show. “They hope to be servicing these customers for decades to come.”

That was not always the case. China’s arms industry had long been known for cheap knockoffs of Russian hardware: East Timor’s president once described the Chinese patrol boats his country was purchasing as a “fake Gucci ship.”

These days, technological advances are driving expansion.

Deliveries of big-ticket military hardware more than doubled between 2007 and last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, lifting China to seventh place among arms exporters. The institute tally excludes sales of small arms and ammunition, of which China has long been a major supplier.

The FC-1 Xiaolong multirole fighter jet is an example of what’s behind that growth.

Developed in cooperation with the Pakistani air force, which calls it the JF-17 Thunder, the plane is being offered at the relatively low price of about $15 million, making it a cost-efficient replacement for aging workhorses such as the MiG-21 and Northrop F-5 Tiger.

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