The question of whether Turkey is a “friend” of Western Nations or an adversary has filled many pages. Yes, they’re a full member of NATO. And at the same time, they almost never behave as if they are. I characterize them as friends of convenience. Is that too kind? They have a militant sultan running their country, but the US is ruled by shadow oligarchs, not Jo/Ho. So it’s complicated.
Sanctions on Turkey keep them from importing weapons systems from the US, and a cottage military-industrial complex has grown up around that denial. You can read about their latest efforts here.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in a different situation than Turkey. 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. Nobody trusts them, and with ample cause.
Aviation Week & Space Technology opined twenty years ago 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.
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.
China makes products that are on par with the aircraft 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 (pictured below), 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.
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 airpower 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.