OPED By Loro Horta
China is very proud of its stealth fighter, the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’. The fifth-generation twin-engine stealth fighter symbolizes the country’s technological achievements and its ability to match the West in advanced technologies.
China claims that J-20 is equal to the US F-22 Raptor and even superior in some aspects.
In a 2014 interview with Chinese Phoenix TV, Song Zhongping, a former officer in the Second Artillery (China’s missile force), claimed that China was not going to export the J-20 for fears that its fifth-generation technology could fall in the wrong hands.
Song also claimed that unless the US sold its F-22 to its allies, there was no need for China to sell the J-20 to its allies.
Song argued that since the US was only providing its allies with the less capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) China would only sell to its allies the FC-31, supposedly at the same technological and performance level as the F-35.
China’s J-20 Obsession
So it seems, there are two main reasons behind Beijing’s unwillingness to sell the J-20 in the international market.
One, China fears that its fifth-generation technology will fall into the wrong hands and be copied. Two, Beijing wants to avoid an arms race in the fifth-generation technology between its allies and those of the US.
While these two factors may have some influence on China’s decision not to export the J-20. There are other more practical reasons that Beijing prefers not to highlight publicly.
Despite two decades of massive investment in defense-related research, the Chinese military industry has performed very poorly in the international market. In 2020, China’s global weapons exports accounted for a mere 5.2 percent of the total international arms trade.
With very few exceptions these were made up of relatively unsophisticated items such as armored vehicles, transport aircraft, artillery, patrol boats, and light weapons. China’s military aviation industry has performed even more poorly in the international arms market.
Until the FC-31 enters full service, perhaps in the next 3 years, China has marketed the JF-17 as its main export fighter.
The JF 17 is a fourth-generation, lightweight single-engine, multi-role fighter jointly developed by China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex.
Despite being on the market for over a decade the JF-17 has had modest success. Apart from the Pakistani Air Force which currently operates 138 planes, the only other customers are Myanmar that is under international sanctions and cut off from Western arms, operating 7 and Nigeria with three.
At a cost of US$60 million for the most advanced versions, the JF-17 is cheaper than other fourth-generation aircraft offered by European manufacturers and Russia. Such as the French Dassault Rafale and the Russian SU-35.
In addition to being cheaper than most other similar fighters. China usually offers more flexible means of payment such as credit lines and barter trade.
For instance, Venezuela is reported to have acquired 8 Shaanxi Y-8 Chinese transport planes in exchange for oil. Yet despite the low cost and flexible modes of payment. China is struggling to sell its fighter jets.
The fact of the matter is that the world is just not convinced about the quality of Chinese fighter jets. Therefore, only countries under sanctions and with limited resources will buy from China.
While China has made significant advances in aviation technology, the world’s air forces are just not convinced.
Therefore, Song’s claim that China does not want to export the J-20 for fear of other countries copying its technology is a mere publicity act aimed at domestic audiences.
By refusing to export the J-20, China is attempting to put the J-20 at the same technological level as the F-22 Raptor. Most analysts agree that the J-20 is nowhere near the F-22 or even the F-35.
By saying that China will export only the FC-31, China is trying to convey the message that the FC-31 is equal to the F-35.
The F-35, despite some production delays, is a commercial success story with over 665 planes currently operational in 15 countries and more likely to place orders.
In June, the F-35 beat the French Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter to be selected as the Swiss Air Force new fighter jet in a contract worth US$ 6.5 billion. It’s rather doubtful that the FC 31 will have similar success.
It’s also well-known that China’s combat aircraft rely heavily on Russian reversed engineered technology and stolen American technology.
For instance, until 2020, nine years after the J-20 went into service, its engine was the Russian-built AL-31, replaced by the domestically produced WS-10C early this year.
Use Of Russian Tech
Both the J-20 and the FC-31 contain Russian technology and could not be exported without Russian consent; at least in theory.
The fact that Chinese weapons are in large part based on Russian technologies raises an obvious question in the minds of many foreign militaries — why buy from China and not directly from Russia?
Indeed, in 2015 China itself bought 24 Russian SU-35 multirole fighters for US$2 billion. Why would a nation that claims that its fighters are at the same level as that of the F-22 and F-35 buy a Russian aircraft in service, in its many variants, for over two decades?
The reason why China is not offering the J-20 for export is to do with the fact that no one is likely to take it. The FC-31, of which two prototypes have been completed, is unlikely to fare any better.
China may have made some significant improvements in its fighter jet technology, however, it remains behind the US, Europe, and Russia.
Perhaps more seriously for China, its products suffer from an image problem. In the same way that buyers prefer, German and Japanese cars compared to Chinese ones. Countries that can afford will not buy Chinese fighter jets.
Therefore, Song’s claims are aimed at a nationalistic domestic audience intended to instill pride in China’s technological prowess and show that it is at the same level as its main rival the United States.
Other Chinese state media outlets have claimed that Chinese fighters were superior to the Americans. In January 2019 the state-run Global Times claimed that an upgraded version of the J-20 was “overwhelmingly” superior to the F 35. In April, the Global Times said that the J-20 engine was more powerful than the engine of the F-22.
While China has made significant progress in its fighter development, the US has not stood idly. China may eventually produce fighter jets as good as American fighters, but, it will take more than wishful thinking to do so.
(Loro Horta is a diplomat from Timor Leste. He is a graduate of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, the Chinese National Defense University, the US Naval Post Graduate School and the American National Defense University. Views expressed are personal.)
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