Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

By , vice president of analysis at Teal Group.
An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.
An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force Ba Yi aerobatics team during the Singapore Airshow media preview in Singapore on Feb. 9, 2020. Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Fighter jet exports represent a unique combination of hard and soft power. If a country can sell fighter jets abroad, that means it can attract customers for sophisticated weapons that can sell for upwards of $100 million, which in turn proves that the country has appeal as a strategic partner. It’s no surprise, then, that Beijing has hankered to become a major fighter exporter for some time.

As China’s global stature has grown, many expected that its weapons exports would reflect its place on the world stage. Yet after decades of trying, that simply hasn’t happened. Last month’s confrontation with the Philippines, where Chinese naval vessels entered Philippine waters without authorization, may indicate the crux of the problem—and this failure may well illustrate a key weakness for China. Essentially, few want to partner up with Beijing.

For decades, China’s growth as a combat aircraft export power has seemed inevitable. In April 1997, Interavia, a once-influential trade journal, predicted, “China Poised to Overtake Russia” and Beijing would “well outstrip Russia in a decade or so as the combat aircraft provider to the developing world.” Nine years later, Aviation Week & Space Technology opined that “China may emerge as the bargain-basement provider of combat aircraft packages for the export market.”

Fighter jet exports represent a unique combination of hard and soft power. If a country can sell fighter jets abroad, that means it can attract customers for sophisticated weapons that can sell for upwards of $100 million, which in turn proves that the country has appeal as a strategic partner. It’s no surprise, then, that Beijing has hankered to become a major fighter exporter for some time.

As China’s global stature has grown, many expected that its weapons exports would reflect its place on the world stage. Yet after decades of trying, that simply hasn’t happened. Last month’s confrontation with the Philippines, where Chinese naval vessels entered Philippine waters without authorization, may indicate the crux of the problem—and this failure may well illustrate a key weakness for China. Essentially, few want to partner up with Beijing.

For decades, China’s growth as a combat aircraft export power has seemed inevitable. In April 1997, Interavia, a once-influential trade journal, predicted, “China Poised to Overtake Russia” and Beijing would “well outstrip Russia in a decade or so as the combat aircraft provider to the developing world.” Nine years later, Aviation Week & Space Technology opined that “China may emerge as the bargain-basement provider of combat aircraft packages for the export market.”

The numbers clearly show that nothing of the sort happened. Between 2000 and 2020, China exported just $7.2 billion worth of military aircraft, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute arms transfers database. Meanwhile, the United States stayed safely on top, exporting $99.6 billion, and Russia stayed in the second slot at $61.5 billion. Even France’s aircraft exports doubled China’s, at $14.7 billion. And there were few signs of upward momentum for China.

This feeble sales record has nothing to do with the aircraft themselves.

Chinese fighters also didn’t break out of their relatively small core market. In the 1990s, their biggest customers were Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, North Korea, and a few African countries. That remains the list today. A Center for Strategic and International Studies report points out that, since 2010, 63.4 percent of China’s conventional weapons sales have gone to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

This feeble sales record has nothing to do with the aircraft themselves. China has made great strides in improving its state-owned aerospace technology base, particularly in the military realm. China makes quality products, or at least products that are on par with the planes that the old Soviet Union succeeded in exporting in great quantities to various countries.

The J-10, a fighter that Beijing unveiled in the 2000s, has operating characteristics—including speed, range, payload, weapons capabilities, and sensors—that are fully in line with U.S., Russian, and European aircraft on the export market. The latest version, the J-10C, has an active electronically scanned array radar, as most modern Western fighters do. Yet not one has sold overseas, even as China has been trying to peddle the J-10 to its biggest single military aircraft customer, Pakistan, and other countries for more than 15 years. (Pakistan is sticking with older technology from China with the JF-17, partly because it’s all the country can afford, and partly because it’s been assembling it domestically.) Other Chinese combat aircraft have had similar fates.

New Chinese fighters with stealth airframe features, which help them avoid radar detection, such as the J-20 and FC-31, have also come on the market in recent years, but with no rumors of any international interest. Most likely, these planes are too expensive for China’s core combat aircraft customer group. But that doesn’t explain the export failure of all the other, older models.

The best explanation of this failure is China’s foreign policy. The Philippines is a perfect illustration of why China’s fighter export ambitions have stalled. For five years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to steer the country away from the United States and toward China. Also, until a few years ago, the country had never purchased a new fighter jet—the limited defense budget could only afford hand-me-down jets from the United States.

The Philippines is cash-strapped, nonaligned, and eager to assert a pro-China path: the perfect recipe for a Chinese combat aircraft export market breakthrough in a key regional nation. If the country eventually purchased a few squadrons of Chinese fighters while simultaneously demanding the U.S. Navy keep away from its former Philippine bases for good, as it moved to do in February 2020, the world would have regarded this as a major Chinese foreign-policy coup.

Now, that doesn’t seem likely. Last month, tensions between the two countries in the South China Sea heated up to a simmer, with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeting, “You’re like an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend; not to father a Chinese province.”

The Philippines has instead found another path for its combat aircraft needs. In 2015, it took its first Korea Aerospace Industries FA-50s. Buying these fighters allowed the Philippines to move away from reliance on U.S. weaponry. But these aircraft are heavily based around U.S. technologies, including General Electric engines and Lockheed Martin design assistance. Ultimately, the country stayed in the U.S.-aligned air power camp.

It isn’t just the Philippines. China’s other neighbors don’t like China, with predictable ramifications for the fighter sales business. India, a longtime Russian fighter customer with a strong interest in sourcing from multiple countries, should also be a potential J-10 customer but is instead facing another nasty border confrontation with China in the Himalayas. India is increasingly looking to Western countries for military equipment and won’t even consider China, whose status as a possible adversary rules it out as a weapons provider. Ditto for Vietnam, with its worsening maritime dispute with China. Malaysia and Indonesia are also too wary of Beijing’s ambitions to ever consider acquiring a Chinese fighter.

This pattern of failure speaks to more than just a problem with sharp elbows.

First, it shows a lack of commercial soft power. Fighter sales often involve a trade relationship, since they tend to include commercial offsets—or economic sweeteners such as market access or technology transfer that are designed to mitigate some of the expense of a weapons package. But China’s relatively closed economic system means that potential customers with export-oriented economies have little to gain, since China wants to be a globally dominant export manufacturer and certainly doesn’t want to increase its intake of imported manufactured goods. If anything, China has historically been a competitor with other emerging markets for investment and foreign firms’ factories.

While Beijing struggles to find any takers, Washington’s military export standing is poised for further growth.

But fighter exports are more than just a popularity contest. They also reflect the strength of a supplier country’s alliances and help strengthen strategic relationships. Military export sales improve program production, and increased output can make production less costly (a phenomenon known as economies of scale). For example, international sales for the United States’ F-35, which is coming to dominate the high end of the export fighter market, have been nearly as large as U.S. domestic purchases. Most importantly, in the event of a crisis or war, customers can help the selling country with logistics and support for its own fleet through, for example, spare parts, weapons, and upgrades. Operating the same aircraft also opens the door to harmonized operations and easier communication.

Yet Beijing lacks appeal as a strategic partner in the region. It has little interest in preserving the status quo in Asia, few qualms about territorial expansion, and next to no record of supporting allies in times of crisis. The region’s other powers see little to gain from a strategic relationship with China, which would be inextricable from purchasing its fighter jets.

Indeed, the big markets in the region are Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore. All source their military aircraft almost exclusively from the United States; four of them are partners or customers of the F-35 program. And all would play a crucial role in any conflict with China.

While Beijing struggles to find any takers, Washington’s military export standing is poised for further growth. India, in the past decade, has started purchasing more than $12 billion worth of U.S. P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, C-17 and C-130J military cargo transports, and AH-64 and CH-47 military helicopters. The first U.S. fighter sale to India is quite likely in the coming decade. There have even been discussions about possible U.S. military aircraft sales to Vietnam, and in recent years Hanoi departed from its Russian purchases and actually ordered a few Airbus maritime patrol aircraft from Spain.

Meanwhile, in the event of a regional conflict between China and other countries, China can count on air power cooperation and support from Myanmar, Laos, and North Korea—countries that would either not be involved in such a conflict or would not play a material role in the outcome.

The most important conclusion from all of this is that building good aircraft and other weapons won’t help your defense industry—or enhance your strategic power—if you don’t have friends.

Update, July 1, 2021: The description of a Center for Strategic and International Studies report has been updated.

Richard Aboulafia is vice president of analysis at Teal Group. He has advised numerous aerospace companies and writes and edits Teal's World Military and Civil Aircraft Briefing.

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