WASHINGTON — Despite much handwringing in the US about China's next-generation aircraft technology, analysts don't expect the Pacific power to expand its grip on the global military aviation market.
The obvious niche for China to target is the market filled during the Cold War by Russian equipment. For nations outside of Europe, Russia represented an alternative supplier to the US, one which was generally cheaper to procure than American equipment.
Doug Berenson, an analyst with Avascent, said Russian firms need to be aware of the threat to traditional customers.
"If I were the Russians, I would know exactly which way the wind is blowing. Chinese firms are going to grow into a certain level of excellence, and if the Russians think they can control the flow of Chinese exporters from there, they are fooling themselves," he said.
However, that market is limited for China, in part due to geopolitical reasons. A series of aggressive moves by China to expand its territory in the South China Sea has angered neighbors in the region, including some who have purchased Russian equipment that now may be falling behind newer technologies put forth by China.
"China's actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways," he said. "And they're increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific. We're going to meet it."
Vasiliy Kashin, a China defense specialist at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, agrees.
"Some of the traditional Russian customers are China's regional adversaries, so there can be no competition between Russia and China on these markets," he noted.
A few years ago, Vietnam would have seemed a clear customer for Chinese military goods. But Chinese actions, including the placement of an oil rig just off Vietnamese waters in 2014, have driven Vietnam to increase its military-industrial ties with the US.
The oil rig situation led to a spike in anti-Chinese sentiment, including riots that targeted Chinese-owned businesses. It also, according to a US official, helped solidify a decision by Vietnam's leadership to move closer to the US politically.
There are still markets available to China, of course. Kashin points to limited successes China has had with markets that "are not that important to Russia," such as an expected agreement from Myanmar to buy China's FC-1 fighter, which is jointly produced with Pakistan as the JF-17, despite having Russian legacy equipment.
The Myanmar military "already has a fleet of MiG-29s, and we could expect them to continue buying newer MiG-29 versions, but they chose a Chinese aircraft," he said.
Berenson noted that the biggest market where Russia has been losing out to China is also one of the world's largest economies — China itself.
Another barrier for China, Aboulafia says, is the inherent nature of its aerospace industry.
"One real issue with China as an aerospace producing country is the massive difference between China's broader economy and its aerospace segment," Aboulafia said. "They reformed the bulk of their economies, but aerospace remains largely a state-run relic."
In that regard, China has similarities with India, another Russian customer that will probably never buy a Chinese weapon.
Kashin also points to a technological problem facing China — developing a high-end domestic engine. Despite progress and an increasing reliance on domestic engines for the Chinese military, he said, the engines are not capable enough to compete on the open market.
"That means that Russia can block Chinese exports to the markets Russia considers strategically important," Kashin said. "But Russia cannot block Chinese exports everywhere, because that would be bad for relations."
Wendell Minnick in Taipei contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.