Turkey 

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.

China

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.

FC-31

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.

29 COMMENTS

  1. Friends can be a force multiplier. It’s a good thing that the Dems have such a stellar reputation for not abandoning people who tried to rely on them….

    • The USA has had its invasions and military occupations, as everyone knows, Iraq, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, etc. but it’s not aggressively expansionist to the extent that China is. China represents the ultimate in Imperialism these days.

      It is often argued that Russia is on a similar track but to be fair about it, the disputed portion of Ukraine and Crimea have populations that want Russia rather than Ukraine to call the shots. There are historical and cultural matters that underpin some of that.

      Do you trust a walking corpse and a whore, Frank? I wouldn’t. But they’re preferable to China.

      • Actually, I was thinking that the Dems seem to be taking the path of making everyone dislike them, much like China has such a reputation for being an asshoe (to borrow a word used for them elsewhere.) Don’t know if Dems will take it to the same extreme, but they seem to be making quite the go of it for now.

  2. Sir,

    thank you for this excellent analysis.
    Commentaries like this one make your blog a daily ‘must read’.
    You contribute greatly to providing me with deep insights into world politics and economics, not to mention geo-strategic analyses of the highest quality.
    Keep up the good work!

    Greetings from Germany,

    Martin

    • Pakistan has made the Devil’s Deal with China. They received nukes and nuke tech, discount war machines, etc. China now expects them to send raw materials to China and buy finished goods from the Middle kingdom. They also have to accept a Chinese military highway that runs to the Indian Ocean and to host Chinese naval assets. It works so long as you realize that you’ve become a marionette.

      • A harbor full of docked naval assets in a port they don’t own and a long military highway running thru a country they don’t control look suspiciously like a juicy target list to me. But I was just a junior NCO more-or-less fifty years ago so what do I know.

  3. Great summation of the overall situation. Thanks for posting it. I am in the middle of the book “Red Star Over the Pacific” and the picture it paints of China is very expansionist. So far, every country in the area is afraid of becoming a Chinese province and all the goodies China promises come with very heavy strings attached.

  4. I’ll echo Martin from Germany in saying I really appreciate analyses like this. Very pointed and well done. The facts of how so much of the world, especially their neighbors, are too skeptical of China to buy their products speaks volumes.

    When I started at the last company I retired from, 25 years ago, they were subcontracting software quality assurance to China. It was their way of falling into the very widespread idea in all sorts of American industries that China is the biggest developing market in the world and the way to grow our sales is to agree with China’s demands for producing things there.

    I remember saying offhandedly to the software manager something like, “should we be shipping software to a country with no copyright laws and no respect for copyrights?” Yet everyone was doing it.

    I think American aviation companies got the Chinese aviation industry going that way. I haven’t seen details, but I’d be less than surprised to see my designs on the C919 without our company name being even near them.

  5. Barky the Lightbringer and his administration really pissed off the Philippines over the whole “Go ahead and shoot drug dealers in the streets” thing. His administration laid down some serious penalties and other bullscat, which assured that Duerte et al would go looking elsewhere.

    Trump could have brought them back if the State Department weasels hadn’t kept sticking their nasty little ChiCom and Russian owned fingers into everything.

    Now? Well, Duerte, guess what? Your ChiCom pals aren’t your pals. When South American countries start lighting up and sinking PRC fishing vessels and you and yours don’t, well, message is received in Beijing that you are still a buncha wimps. Heck, you (the Philippines) can’t even handle a little muslim insurgency.

    As to entering into any agreement, business, military, state affairs, with the PRC? It always comes with a huge debt and a huge takeover by the PRC.

    And, as to their military jets, well, leftovers from the Vietnam War put paid to front-line PRC aircraft every time the PRC has gotten frisky with Vietnam.

    Weird that Socialist Vietnam looks to be entering into a giant alliance of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and all the other little and big countries in the SE Asia area. All allying against the PRC.

    And that’s the thing. On paper the PRC looks strong, but everywhere their stuff has gone up against even ‘chimp’ versions of Western equipment, they (PRC) has had their heads handed to them. How good is their stuff if it can’t stand up to last generation’s Western equipment.

    As to India, they need something like the F-35 in order to do air operations off of their carriers. Their current Soviet/Russian equipment is sub-par.

    • “a giant alliance of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and all the other little and big countries in the SE Asia”

      That says something about just how much China is distrusted.
      1. The Japanese think that ALL non-Japanese are monkeys. (Literally. As one example out of literally thousands they published [i.e. peer reviewed] results of illegal “medical experiments” on Chinese civilians as results from “non-human primates” and “Manchurian monkeys”. See “Unit 731”.)
      2. The ROK purely hate Japan and the Japanese. Singapore’s not fond of them either.
      3. At least half of Taiwan do not like the Japanese. The older generation of self-proclaimed “native” Taiwanese often liked the Japanese, but they’re dying off.
      4. Not sure how the Koreans view Taiwan and Singapore. I know that the general Korean/Chinese relationship can be compared to Irish vs English, but S’pore is a weird little statelet that is “out of normal categories” on a bunch of things.

      As to the Philippines, pretty sure the Japanese, Koreans, and people on Taiwan ALL think of them as “unserious people”, if not outright monkeys. Same applies to many other SE Asian countries, such as Malaysia for example. (The dislike is reciprocated. After all, S’pore was kicked out of Malaya for being a nest of Overseas Chinese.) If all these people, who dislike and distrust each other intensely, can band together against China, the depth of feeling is very very strong. “Is this Anti-Sinotism”?

      I wish I had more insight on the role of “Overseas Chinese” (OSC) in SE Asia viz the PRC. Those people have an interesting ecological role. OSC are viewed as having disproportionately great economic power in their host countries (this is true), said power having been gained in large part through collusion with their co-ethnics, nepotism, and sheer greed manifested as vicious and usurious business practices (these are often true). Some OSC have changed their names, so that an ethnic Chinese (monosyllabic surnames, with only three exceptions) might have a 5-syllable Thai surname. But the OSC remembers he is Chinese, and not one of those people. Basically the “dual loyalty” issue pops up, and I don’t have a good handle on whether it’s an “anti-Sinotic slur” or if it’s true.

      • Nobody, I mean NOBODY, can look down their noses at lesser humans like the core Chinese – aka The Han. Those racist and sadistic basterds think all of us who aren’t 100% Han are just various monkeys and monkey/human crossbreeds to be used and bilked and lied to and screwed with and and and.

        The Arab Muslim’s idea of purity is nothing to the Han.

        And that attitude has begun to forge a military and economic alliance that will spank the living daylights out of the PRC. As all of those other militaries have either proven themselves (Korea, Vietnam) or been highly motivated to learn from others (Singapore, Japan) and such.

        Not that all those ‘little’ nations wouldn’t be very happy killing each other off if given half a chance, but strange circumstances may actually force a reasonable peace within the region. Scary weird, but it is what it is.

        That is, if (non)President Fumbles McPuddingbrains and his administration (and the people who control and guide and own them) don’t destabilize everything.

  6. I don’t know much about Turkey. I was in Istanbul for a few days many years ago, but it wasn’t very memorable other than the stamp in my passport.

    I think your analysis of China’s export problems is spot-on. Besides the fact that nobody trusts them, their equipment has a deserved ruputation for being second-class to even Russian stuff. Yes, the ChiComs are capable of producing first-class stuff, witness things like Apple products, but you have to have your own people there, watching them like a hawk, so they don’t cut corners and/or steal you blind. NOT a place I’d care to do business with.

    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.

    Aye, there’s the rub…..

    • Turkey, always been a weird bird. Anti-Soviet/Russian, but…

      Then Weirdo Erdogan took over and started up the whole Caliphate/Ottoman Empire (with Turkey on top) thingy and now I don’t trust the nation and a good portion of its people as far as I could nuke them.

      After talking to some Turks, I got the feeling that they’re still pissed that they lost at Lepanto. And still whining about the first Crusade.

  7. My contrarian experience:
    The cheap slapped-together quick-to-fail junk known as ‘chinesium’?
    The genetic-laboratory created S.A.R.S.-CoV-2 is the perfect example of half-fasting a potential deadly global plague.
    All the chinese needed was to target certain genetic traits, and they fumbled that.
    Pathetic.
    the chinese — inbred, xenophobic — as potential global dominators?
    Laughable.
    The only reason the chinese plutocrats are alive — their slaves do not own firearms.
    The only reason civilized folk tolerate the chinese decision-makers — they are cute, harmless, baby kittens.
    They are as fear-inspiring as sleep-walking kittens… with asthma and a chronic case of explosive diarrhea.
    Downhill with a tail-wind and nobody at the wheel, the chinese cannot trip fast enough to keep from falling.
    I am not impressed.
    PS — the chinese eat bird nests.
    What!

    • Don’t sell inbreds short. Latest genetic evidence indicates that approximately 700 years ago there were a mere 350 individuals (if not fewer) from whom are descended the most powerful ethnic group on the planet.

  8. The Chinese CLAIM to sell world class equipment, but as mentioned above it hasn’t been very successful. Note also that the Chinese themselves use very little of that high end equipment.
    If you dig into it, there is information showing that the equipment doesn’t live up to the hype, both somewhat in performance and hugely in maintenance.
    It makes me wonder how capable their carrier and new destroyers are. I’ve noticed that in the US, the media is skeptical about the US military but accepts anything the Chinese military claims.

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