MELBOURNE, Australia — China’s massive military modernization program over the past two decades has been matched to a large degree by a parallel development in its state-owned military-industrial base, and that trend is set to continue as China continues it efforts to build up its forces to challenge U.S. military primacy in the western Pacific.
Despite accusations that a lot of the technology has been acquired through espionage or outright intellectual property theft, there is no question that China’s military might has taken a big leap in capabilities since the turn of the century as it has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse.
This buildup is most evident at sea, where the ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, are frequently encountered by the navies of China’s neighbors at sea in greater numbers at longer and longer distances from China’s coastline. They have also been appearing frequently at or near the disputed reefs and features in the South China Sea, which China has reclaimed and turned into military outposts. The country has regularly challenged U.S. military ships in the area and harassed those from the rival claimants of the region.
Most of the PLAN’s ships are built by two state-owned shipbuilding behemoths, the China State Shipbuilding Corporation and the China Shipbuilding Industry Company. Together both companies have primarily been responsible for the Chinese naval buildup, with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies noting earlier this year that China “has launched more submarines, warships, principal amphibious vessels and auxiliaries than the total number of ships currently serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan and the United Kingdom” since 2014.
The think tank further noted that following a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when China experimented with small classes of incrementally improved designs, it has in recent years settled on designs and shifted its priorities toward putting ships in the water at a rapid clip, in what has been likened to “dropping dumplings into soup.”
The results have been impressive to see, with almost 50 Type 056 corvettes and more than 20 Type 054 frigates commissioned within the last decade.
The shipbuilding program is more impressive when larger ships are factored in, with eight Type 052D destroyers in service and another 11 in various stages of construction or sea trials, with a further six of the new Type 055 cruisers fitting out or being built. Both classes are modern ships fitted with advanced phased-array radars and vertical launch systems capable of launching a variety of anti-ship, anti-aircraft or land-attack missiles.
An aircraft carrier program is also ongoing, with a locally built ship based on the former Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class vessel being fitted out, while the first a new class of more capable aircraft carrier is believed to be undergoing module construction in Shanghai.
China’s aviation industry is also making strides in building up its capabilities. It has moved away from its beginnings manufacturing licensed and unlicensed copies of Soviet aircraft during the Cold War. The backbone of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is the Chengdu J-10 and the Shenyang J-11/15/16 derivatives of the Russian Sukhoi Flanker family, although the latter are extensively fitted with local avionics, weapon systems and engines.
The industry has also ramped up production of support aircraft, with the Y-9 turboprop and Y-20 jet airlifters in serial production. The former is also built for special missions such as airborne early warning, anti-submarine and intelligence gathering fitted with locally developed mission systems.
However, the local industry continues to struggle with critical technologies despite a sustained effort at bridging this gap. This is most notable in the field of aircraft engines, as China is still seemingly unable to produce jet engines to a standard it deems satisfactory; the country still relies, to some extent, on imported Russian engines. This is exemplified by the single-engine J-10 interceptor, J-15 carrier-borne fighter and Y-20 — all still operating with imported power plants despite Chinese equivalents already in service or in development.
This is also true of the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, which is slowly entering service, although recent evidence suggests some J-20 prototypes are undergoing flight tests powered by indigenous engines with low-observable features.
That Chinese defense companies — like universities and research institutes that conduct defense-related research and development — are entirely state-owned entities has not stopped them from pursuing private ventures for the export market. In recent years, Chinese companies have pushed hard for arms exports, with the country’s share of the global arms market increasing in recent years.
However, the export successes have mostly been connected to developing nations, who were attracted by the lower price point and the few political strings attached to sales of Chinese weapon systems, compared to Western counterparts. Attempts to move into more prestigious markets has so far proved unsuccessful, except in cases where buyers are unable to access Western systems such as Saudi Arabia turning to Chinese armed drones due to since-relaxed American restrictions on the export of such systems.
One of the main stumbling blocks has been a negative perception on the quality of Chinese-made arms, a reputation partly fueled by China refusing to release its top-of-the line systems for export, with a notable example being the Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter, which has been marketed overseas despite the Chinese military showing little interest.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.