Coinciding with the comprehensive rise of China, the country started organising exhibition of military equipment and systems from domestic as well as foreign vendors in the last decade. Two such exhibitions include the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition every alternate year in the southern city of Zhuhai closer to Hong Kong and another one Chinese Defense Electronics Exhibition at Beijing. Both of these shows attract considerable attention, although not yet in the same league as other global shows in terms of scale, display, participation and legitimacy. China intends to showcase the capabilities of its military-industrial complex products in these exhibitions, invite foreign participants for tapping such equipment and systems, rival such shows at Farnborough, Paris, Moscow or Bengaluru and overall contribute to the rise of China.
With China amassing $2.8 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, it is likely that China would tempt a lot of military industrial firms across the world to channelise their wares and adapt them despite the arms embargo imposed by the Western countries in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Also, China is eager to sell its massproduced products to the underdeveloped countries who find Western products expensive politically and economically. Chinese military supplies often come at “friendly” discount prices. While China might claim that there are no “political strings” attached to such sales, its incorrect, as China usually signs long-term contracts with the recipient country only when the latter parts with some of it’s strategic resources. Eight such exhibitions were conducted by China at Zhuhai since 1996. At the 8th air show at Zhuhai in November 2010, nearly 70 aircraft from 35 countries and 600 domestic and foreign exhibitors displayed their products.
The highlight of this show was the display of as many as 25 UAV models in combat and battlefield reconnaissance roles (while the 2006 show had only one and the next 2008 show displaying more than a dozen UAVs), underlying the indispensable nature of such systems as exhibited in the recent Afghan campaign against the Taliban. China bought several Israeli-made UAV’s before and the current Chinese interest shows that the Chinese R&D is getting more sophisticated, although some of the displays such as Yilong UAV resemble the United States Predator RQ-1. Other features of this round included armoured vehicles, manned space station models and other equipment. The participants invited, equipment displayed, aerobatic performances conducted and arms traded – in all these aspects there has been a quiet transformation at Zhuhai in these eight shows.
Firstly, the number of participating countries, products and firms had increased over a period of time, with predominant focus of Russia initially giving way to that of the participation of other countries (including the United States GE Commercial Aviation Services) and from display of fighter and trainer aircrafts (Su-27, Su-30, J-10, etc) and air refueling tankers (Il-78 and H-6U) to that of unmanned aerial vehicles, precisionguided munitions, dual use technologies and other sophisticated systems. Active duty equipment in the Chinese inventory made their debut only from the 7th show in 2008.These include J-10, J-8D fighters, JH-7A fighter-bomber, H-6 tanker, Y-8 transport, Z-8 helicopters built with French support and others. This indicates that while China was concerned more about the aspect of secrecy of its equipment, the last two shows indicate to relative transparency, although several aircraft under development have been dropped from being displayed in the shows.
It is unlikely, then, that China will display at the next show in 2012, the J-20 stealth fighter-bomber, which had been reportedly flight-tested in Jan 2011. The Indian Air Force Surya Kiran also made their debut aerobatic performances at this show. While the Indian and the Chinese sides have conducted low level confidence building measures among their respective armies (‘hand-in-hand’ joint counter-terror operations) and navies (search-and-rescue operations), this is the first time such exercise extended to the air forces, albeit at a very low-key level. In contrast Pakistan Air Force presence is high at the show in terms of the performance of Sherdils aerobatic team and most importantly China-Pakistan collaboration in the manufacture of the JH-17 fighter aircraft, which was displayed at the show.
The presence of Pakistan in this show is important for China both as a customer for Chinese products as well as a conduit for China in surreptitiously transferring western-supplied technologies. Secondly, contrary to the notion that these shows display predominantly aviation products, other military equipment such as tactical and strategic missile models, space launch vehicles, armoured vehicles, battlefield electronic systems, etc were also displayed at Zhuhai – indicating that China is interested in diversifying the product sales at the exhibition for prospective customers. Thirdly, starting with low level transactions at the 1996 show, the latest in 2010 saw trade contracts worth nearly $10 billion transacted at Zhuhai, with Chinese domestic customers buying equipment from technologically advanced countries and selling Chinamade military or commercial products to less developed states such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and other African and Asian states.
In the 2008, more than $4 billion worth of goods were transacted. Civilian transport aircraft sales at the show are significant recently. Among the suppliers include McDonnell Douglas, General Electric, Bombardier, Austrian-based Diamond Aircraft Industries, French Snecma and others. Such overwhelming preference for China-made commercial jet airliners instead of military equipment indicates that China has a long way to go in establishing itself as a reliable producer of advanced military equipment/systems for varied customers. In the last decade, several aviation companies have collaborated with China in the commercial jetliners given the inexpensive labour costs in China. Lasly,while Russia had displayed advanced fighter aircraft like Su-35 or Tu-22M3 back-fire nuclear bombers initially, due to the Chinese penchant for reverse-engineering and the general Russian assessment that such systems in the Chinese hands could pose threats to its own security in the medium future, there has been some reluctance recently of Russian participation in these shows. Russian sales of arms to China have also dropped recently.