A pair of China’s homegrown J-20 stealth fighters made their public debut on Tuesday by roaring over Zhuhai during the opening of the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition (otherwise known as the China Air Show). Also expected to embark on their maiden public flights in the southern Chinese city are the Y-20 military transporter, a Chinese-made aircraft that can take off while carrying 200 tons, and the CH-5 combat drone, a domestically manufactured unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can stay in the air for up to 60 hours and carry 24 missiles, according to Chinese state media.
The weeklong show, which takes place every two years, is designed to parade China’s latest military innovations. This year’s aerial extravaganza has much to flaunt, from the fifth-generation stealth fighter to China’s largest combat UAV, which is capable of targeted assaults that were once the exclusive preserve of American drones.
China’s air force was once an afterthought appended to the nation’s massive army. Even today, it is called the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. But fed by double-digit budget hikes, the nation’s flying force, like its naval and land counterparts, has modernized its arsenal from the days when it depended on Soviet castoffs. “China’s military aircraft are improving in terms of the speed of innovation and the ability to innovate,” says Gao Feng, a Chinese military analyst. “Compared to some European countries, China can make new military aircraft faster. The R&D cycle is shorter and shorter.”
China’s military upgrade may be only natural for an incipient superpower, especially one that is embroiled in various territorial disputes. But the growing military-industrial complex is also big business for Beijing. The same day the Zhuhai air show began, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak was in Beijing, where he is expected to sign a landmark deal to purchase Chinese-made coastal patrol boats. Last year, the two nations began joint military exercises, even though Malaysia is one of the nations at odds with China over Beijing’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea.
While nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma (known officially as Myanmar) have long purchased Chinese military equipment, other Asian countries have only recently put in their China orders. In April, Thailand signed a $200 million order for Chinese VT-4 main battle tanks and later agreed to a $1 billion deal for Chinese submarines. Last month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte—who announced in Beijing his nation’s “separation” from its longtime ally, the U.S.— talked of buying Chinese weaponry. Chinese aid has also transformed the militaries of smaller nations like Cambodia, which has purchased Chinese-made military helicopters and other equipment via a loan program. Overall, China arms exports increased by 143% from 2011-2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, making the nation the world’s third-largest weapons exporter, after the U.S. and Russia.
Many of the Asian militaries now arming themselves courtesy of China Inc. used to buy their hardware from the U.S. But the region’s geopolitical weight has tipped toward Beijing, even if President Barack Obama has tried to pivot the U.S. toward the Asia-Pacific. In some cases, Washington’s distancing from regional leaders may have sent Asian governments into China’s arms. In Malaysia, allies of Najib are under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department in a sprawling corruption scandal involving the nation’s sovereign wealth fund. In Thailand, the architects of the 2014 army coup, who still rule the country, have chafed at American criticism of their decision to cast aside an elected leader. China, by contrast, delivers no such lectures.
Chinese military hardware is changing the battlefields of Africa and the Middle East. To take one example, the ST1 wheeled tank destroying vehicle was developed by a Chinese defense firm largely for export to the Middle East, according to Chinese defense media. More than 100 of these rumbling machines, which are far cheaper than Western models are, have been delivered to the region. Conflicts in Yemen and Syria are being fueled by Chinese materiel. “We can sell to any country that abides by international rules and laws,” says military analyst Gao. “But countries like the U.S. have ideological considerations, too.” Translation: China can sell its weaponry to nations with which the U.S., the world’s largest arms exporter, refuses to trade.
China’s military establishment takes pains to characterize the nation’s arms build-up as defensive, rather than offensive. “Our country's strategic purpose is to defend our territory and maintain peace rather than a global strategy, and we don't require global deployment,” Zhang Xinguo, vice president of J-20 maker Aviation Industry Corporation of China, told a press conference, according to the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party-linked tabloid.
But a Pentagon report said that the stealth warplane, which mimics the U.S. military’s F-22 Raptor, was, in fact, part of China’s efforts to shift from a “predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both offensive and defensive operations.” China is also working on another long-range stealth fighter, the FC-31. The People’s Liberation Army is building its first overseas base in the strategically vital nation of Djibouti near the Suez Canal.
Meanwhile, China has not shied away from large shows of force overseas. In September, Beijing dispatched more than 40 bombers, fighter jets and air tankers to the western Pacific Ocean for drills that took place not far from disputed islets claimed by both China and Japan. As part of the nation’s blue-water navy expansion, China is building its first aircraft carrier, which is likely to patrol the South China Sea, where Beijing’s claims of roughly 90% of the waterway puts it in conflict with five other governments.
But without China suffering an outbreak of hostilities with one of its neighbors, its armed forces can’t carry out one basic function: testing homemade weaponry in actual combat situations. “In conflict areas, real wars can test the quality of weapons from China,” says military analyst Gao — which means that China’s military exports provide invaluable data as well as hard currency.
—With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing