TAIPAI — China will once again make its presence known at the Dubai Airshow as part of its ongoing effort to find a beachhead in the potentially lucrative, but so far elusive, gulf defense market.
China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp. (CATIC) will feature both a stand (820) and chalet (A41/42) at the show. Controlled by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), CATIC serves as AVIC's agent for its products, which have been finding some acceptance in the Middle East and Africa.
But when it comes to promoting advanced defense products, China faces challenges in trying to sell to the Middle East, said Richard Bitzinger, a military transformation specialist at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"I don't think countries in the region yet trust Chinese weaponry, and price tends not to be a major factor in decision-making," Bitzinger said.
Items like fighter jets and helicopters are just too complicated, he said, and few countries will want to "take a chance on Chinese products, when it comes to performance and quality."
"Keep in mind, too, that Russia is really coming back as an arms exporter, and it is going to compete head-to-head with China in many of these third-world markets," Bitzinger said. "In that regard, Russia has a leg up, since it has long-term relationship with many of the countries in places like the Middle East and Central Asia."
Which doesn't mean China hasn't tried to change regional minds.
At the 2009 Dubai Airshow, AVIC debuted its L-15 Falcon advanced jet trainer, marking the first time the aircraft had been shown to the public outside of China. The L-15 is competing in an international market that includes Alenia Aermacchi's M-346 Master, BAE Systems' Hawk, Lockheed/KAI's T-50 Golden Eagle and the Yakovlev Yak-130.
CATIC, meanwhile, participated in the February land warfare show, IDEX Abu Dhabi, and showcased AVIC's L-15 advanced training aircraft, the Z9WE attack helicopter, UAVs and airborne weapon systems.
Though most of CATIC's and AVIC's efforts will be in the commercial sector at Dubai, AVIC Defense will showcase its wares for the regional military market. AVIC has had success in Africa and the markets in other developing nations, including a 2012 deal for CATIC to deliver eight K8P trainers to the Zambian Air Force via a co-production deal with Pakistan.
Bitzinger does believe that China's UAVs could become a competitor with Western manufacturers for the Middle East market.
China has demonstrated a reliable and cheaper alternative to Western models of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). Iraq has just fielded its first Chinese UCAV, the CH-4B Rainbow. Developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the CH-4B is similar to the US-made Predator.
"They are already making progress, exporting them to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, but this is just the beginning," said Vasiliy Kashin, a China specialist at Moscow's Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
Kashin said that this is still an "early stage of a huge Chinese UCAV export expansion." Given the large-scale instability caused by insurgencies throughout the Middle East, UCAVs are a proven key technology for counterinsurgency warfare.
One of China's most promising UCAVs for the Middle East market is the Wing Loong (aka Pterodactyl) marketed by CATIC at the recent Paris Airshow and expected to make an impact at Dubai. The United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan have reportedly procured an unknown number of Wing Loong aircraft.
Kashin said there will also be significant sales of Chinese transport aircraft such as the Y-8C and Y-9 to Iran. This is allowed by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, he said, and Iran has already airlifted troops to the Syrian theater and has a requirement for more transports.
He is also bullish on future Middle East sales of L-15 and K-8 trainers, possibly in a light attack role, and possibly the joint Pakistan-Chinese produced FC-1/JF-17 fighter.
Pakistan, which is primarily a Sunni nation, has remained neutral in the Syrian conflict, but may, at some point, decide to use its significant influence to promote the K-8 and FC-1, Kashin added.