​China’s Growing Global Stature As Weapons Producer Threatens Russia’s Export Revenues

China overtook Russia to become the world’s No. 2 arms producer between 2015 and 2019, according to data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) last month. The US continues to be in Number 1 position.

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Four Chinese defense companies featured among the top 25 arms manufacturers in 2019. Of these, three companies featured in the top 10 positions, accounting for 16% of overall arms sales, with profits surpassing $56.7 billion.

Only two Russian defense companies could make it to the top 25, accounting for below 4% of the total, earning only $13.9 billion.

The four Chinese arms manufacturers which figured in the list included the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (6th), China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (8th), and China North Industries Group Corporation (9th).

The combined revenue of the four Chinese companies in the top 25 — which also include China South Industries Group Corporation (24th) — grew by 4.8 percent between 2018 and 2019, SIPRI said in its report.

Reflecting on the rise in the arms sales of Chinese companies, SIPRI senior researcher Nan Tian said: “Chinese arms companies are benefiting from military modernization programs for the People’s Liberation Army.”

According to the same report, the revenues of the two Russian companies in the top 25—Almaz-Antey and United Shipbuilding — both decreased between 2018 and 2019, by a combined total of $634 million. A third Russian company, United Aircraft, lost $1.3 billion in sales and dropped out of the top 25 in 2019.

The most notable landmark has been China’s successful development of its own fifth-generation fighter jet engine, which according to Chinese media reports, has been used in the J-20 fighter.

Official videos released earlier this month by its developer and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force showed a twin-seat variation of J-20 stealth fighter jet and a J-20 version equipped with a domestically made engine, which has been spotted for the first time.

The successful deployment of the domestic engine means the J-20 is no longer reliant on Russian engines, the Chinese media reported. The South China Morning Post even quoted a military insider saying “the country’s aircraft engineers found their domestically built WS-10C, the modified version of the WS-10 engine, to be as good as the Russian AL-31F engines.”

A photo of the J-20 fighter prototype taken by military enthusiasts, which has been circulating online since last year, showed J-20 prototype with twin engines, with a new serial number “2021”, sans the Russian engine.

Photo sourced from Weibo

China is fast closing the gap with its Cold-War era ally when it comes to military technology, and the replacement of the J-20 engine is testimony to that. The communist nation has relied on Russian military equipment for decades, but it seems that will no longer be the case.

Nikkei Asia quoted Vadim Kozyulin, director of the Asian Security Project at the PIR Center, a Moscow-based think tank, saying that “China has already surpassed Russia in developing unmanned aerial vehicles, certain kinds of warships and possibly even hypersonic missiles – an area of great pride for the Kremlin in recent years.”

“We see that China is producing new weapon models very rapidly, releasing a new generation every 10 years like the Soviet Union once did,” he added.

Russia’s defense budget is decreasing every year, which explains why it may be hard for the country to keep up with China, which is putting unprecedented resources into defense R&D and manufacturing. From being its customer, China is fast becoming the arms competitor of its friend Russia.

Until 2007, China imported the majority of its defense arsenal from Russia, almost 84% of it, which included combat aircraft, air defense systems, destroyers, and submarines.

Another important industry in which Chinese innovation seems to be leading the world is that of armed drones. China is fast becoming a leading global drone supplier, with its Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) winning the defense markets worldwide.

According to a paper, authored by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Texas A&M University, about 18 countries obtained armed drones from 2011 to 2019, out of which, 11 bought the drones from China. The report says China has dominated the export market for armed UAVs for the entire last decade.

The PLA’s objective is to become a world-class military by the end of 2049 — a goal first announced by President Xi Jinping in 2017. A report released last year by the Department of Defense (USA) acknowledges that China is leading the US itself in at least three areas – shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems.

On the other hand, Russia’s defense expenditure has been gradually declining since 2015, and according to experts, the innovation has reached a stage of stagnation in the country. More economic troubles under Putin hamper the government’s efforts to infuse more capital into defense R&D, thereby giving the Chinese a quicker lead in the market.​​​

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