Closing the Gap: New Opportunities for the Chinese Arms Industry

Last month, a curious thing happened in the world of arms trading. Turkey, which has for years been seeking to acquire a long-range air defence missile system that would enormously expand their capability to defend their own airspace, made an unexpected acquisition. For most analysts, Turkey’s purchase choice was obviously going to be the American MIM-104 Patriot missile system. For generations now, Turkey has been a major purchaser of American arms, virtually every combat aircraft, most of their tanks, and half of their surface combatant fleet are already American, with Turkey also scheduled to purchase even more American arms, most notably the F-35. Turkey is also a key NATO ally and would be well positioned to integrate the now tried and tested Patriot system into its existing arsenal. Indeed, the Patriot has already been proving itself in Turkey for the past year now, ever since NATO moved Patriot missiles into the country to help protect them against potential Syrian attack. Yet, in spite of all that, Turkey ultimately did not choose the American bid or even an option from Europe, it instead chose China’s bid and went for an HQ-9 missile system. Now at present, there are a number of questions as to whether or not Turkey will actually adopt the missiles. The HQ-9 is not at all compatible with Turkey’s predominantly American-made air defence systems and Turkey has already indicated that their decision to buy Chinese arms could potentially be reversed. With that said however, whether or not the deal goes through, this effort nonetheless marks an important moment in China’s efforts to become a major player in the international arms market.

Image courtesy of Jian Kang, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Jian Kang, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Up until now, in spite of its major boost in status over the last twenty years, China has been at best a third tier producer in the arms market. Traditionally, the three major players in the world’s arms industry are American, European, and Russian firms. The Americans generally sell at the cutting edge, developing large numbers of highly sophisticated and expensive systems mostly intended for the US Military; when they do go on sale to foreigners, they typically come with political strings attached. European firms, while technically behind the United State in many areas, nonetheless offer their own selection of high-tech weaponry, often at much more flexible deals, as the European firms rely very heavily on exports to make their arms industries financially viable. Finally, we have Russia, which since the fall of the Soviet Union has relied almost exclusively on exports to survive; meaning that Russian arms deals tend to be the most price-competitive and have by far the most generous in technology transfers, as Russia cannot actually afford to buy much of its own higher-end weapons in any appreciable quantities. Put together, these three centres of production have dominated the international arms market since the end of the Second World War and have in turn left little room for anyone else to expand into the business.

China for the most part has traditionally been seen as a small-scale producer, defined largely by its policies under Mao’s era. China was well known for its sales of small arms and light weapons to a number of developing countries and guerrilla groups throughout the Cold War. Chinese arms sales were also known to be highly uncompetitive in nature, as China mostly sold its more advanced equipment (relatively speaking) to pariah states who could not buy from anyone else. Of course, with China’s economic boom and subsequent military modernization, its arms industry has become much more sophisticated. Chinese arms firms now produce a full range of weaponry, ranging from drones to advanced cruise missiles and while it technically still has a lot of catching up to do, questions about China’s military developments are becoming questions of when rather than if. In spite of this however, China has thus far been unable to break into the competitive global arms market, as it still cannot technically compete with America or Europe and the one it can compete with, Russia, is far better established.

That said, in the long run, Russia’s ability to control its sector of the arms market is likely to deteriorate rapidly. As alluded to previously, the Russian arms industry’s own reliance on exports stems from chronic underinvestment in the sector. Most of Russia’s advanced military equipment, be it jet fighters or helicopters, are derived from old Soviet designs and, in the long run, Russia’s inability to develop new designs means that in the mid to long term, Russia will have fallen so far behind technically that even its generous deals will not be able to save it. It also does not help that much of China’s own technology already equals the Russians in terms of capability and even when it doesn’t, China can simply afford to acquire what it needs from Russian firms because they have no choice but to keep giving out generous technology transfers if they want to remain financially solvent. Thus, Russia’s slow decline in the international arms market is slowly but surely creating a vacuum in the non-Western international arms market, a vacuum that China seems more than happy to fill.

It is in this context that the significance of the Turkish arms deal has to be viewed. Regardless of whether the deal goes through, China has shown that it was able to compete directly with the United States and ultimately was able to get a major NATO ally to the table and sign for them over the Americans. Given the fact that China does not depend on exports to survive either, this would suggest that in the long run, China’s arms market would likely bear a number of similarities to the business model of the United States, where arms sales are seen as a political tool to amass influence and create dependence. If true, then this would represent an enormous boost to Chinese soft power, allowing China to incentivize closer political relationships with them, something that it has had some trouble doing in the past when it could only rely on commercial incentive. Thus, if current trends continue, the world’s arms market could become more competitive in a way that it hasn’t been since the Cold War and if that materialises, China may finally be able to find the footing it needs to compete in the great power games that have thus far eluded them.

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