Why China Could Not Sell Their Fighter Jets Overseas

July 12, 2021 Updated: July 15, 2021

Commentary

My friend and noted aerospace industry expert Richard Aboulafia recently commented on the inability of the Chinese to sell their fighter jets overseas:

“This feeble sales record has nothing to do with the aircraft themselves. China has made great strides in improving its state-owned aerospace technology base, particularly in the military realm. China makes quality products, or at least products that are on par with the planes that the old Soviet Union succeeded in exporting in great quantities to various countries.”

Moreover, Chinese weapons are relatively cheap, reliable, and sold with few questions asked.

The reason, rather, according to Aboulafia, is that China’s neighbors “don’t like China.”

Take, for example, China’s J-10 fighter jet. It is what we call a “fourth-generation-plus” combat aircraft, featuring an advanced radar, a “glass cockpit,” fly-by-wire flight controls, and even a certain amount of stealthiness. It can fire long-range air-to-air missiles and even serve as a ground-attack aircraft. It is roughly the equivalent of an F-16C fighter, which is in wide use in more than two dozen air forces around the world, and it is most likely cheaper than the F-16.

One would expect that the J-10 would offer a lot of competition to Western combat aircraft producers, and yet, how many of these fighters have the Chinese exported?

Zero. Nada. None.

In fact, over the years, China has failed to break into the global arms business in a big way. Fully two-thirds of its annual arms sales go to just three countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Algeria. China’s next biggest arms market is Africa, but many of the products it sells there are decidedly low-end.

There are many reasons for buying arms from a particular supplier-state, beyond economics or military efficacy. Oftentimes, countries buy from a particular country in order to shore up political-military relationships, especially military alliances. A U.S. defense manufacturer supposedly quipped one time that “with every F-16 we sell, we throw in the U.S. Marines.”

Jokes aside, the United States—and, indeed, other Western arms producers, like Britain or France—can offer security guarantees (if desired) and other protections to its customers that China cannot. This simple feature of “hard power” still eludes China; as Aboulafia puts it, “Beijing lacks appeal as a strategic partner.”

At the same time, Chinese “soft power” is also lacking—and perhaps even receding. Soft power is generally defined as “attractive power”: the use of culture, diplomacy, and political values to raise a nation’s appeal to other countries. The goal, in this case, is to entice other nations to want to cooperate with Beijing.

But soft power requires trust painfully cultivated over time and carefully sustained. In the case of China and arms sales, this means that a customer must feel that it can depend on Beijing for services like repair and maintenance of weaponry, the supply of spare parts, training, and even technology transfer.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (L) speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fleet in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

The challenge of soft power is not only that it can be lost quite quickly. And here is where Aboulafia’s retort—that countries simply do not like China—affects arms sales.

In many areas—not just arms sales—countries are finding it harder to trust or to partner with China. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, China’s soft power-oriented “smile campaign” paid huge dividends. As The Economist pointed out, back in 2007, China earned a lot of brownie points by its generosity during the 1997–98 Asian Financial Crisis. “The aid and loans that China offered to other countries helped ease the crisis.” This assistance particularly boosted Beijing’s standing in Southeast Asia, helped along by countries like Singapore, who were happy to engage China in order to reduce tensions. As a result, the article continued, “China developed a taste for getting respect.”

This deliberate effort to convey a kinder, gentler global presence—even as Beijing worked to expand its opportunities for great power capabilities and status (“peaceful rise”) was very successful. In terms of fostering weapons exports, annual Chinese overseas arms sales rose from $295 million in 2000 to over $2 billion in 2013 (that is, Xi Jinping’s first year as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party).

This “softly softly” approach has been replaced, as we all know, by a new belligerency on the part of Beijing, and since then Chinese arms exports have fallen off by 25 to 40 percent.

More importantly, Beijing’s bad behavior has provoked a backlash. Particularly in the United States, it has catalyzed a broad political coalition against China. Trump’s hawkishness toward Beijing has been picked up by the Biden administration.

In Congress, there is considerable bipartisan support for the Strategic Competition Act, which is directly aligned against the technological, economic, and military threat from China. In particular, it seeks to “counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally.”

In addition, the China-watching community in the West has, in general, moved toward more negative impressions of China, as many previously “dovish” China-watchers have transformed into hawks. A recent article in The Economist quoted a “former official who advised several presidents on China,” as saying, “It doesn’t take any bravery to be a China hawk today. It takes bravery to not be one.”

Meanwhile, those calling for continued engagement with China increasingly come across as naïve. Beijing is more and more viewed as a key source of tensions and insecurities in the Asia-Pacific (and in other parts of the world), and rather than join it, nations in the region are actively hedging or balancing against it.

It may be that countries will have to continue to engage with China—it is simply too big to ignore. Nevertheless, future dealings with Beijing will likely be more gingerly and skeptical.

Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.