The “migratory falcon” export sales to domestic use? Chinese warplane export slump reveals soft power shortcomings

China’s military technology level is increasing, but the number of foreign military sales is decreasing. Experts say the main reason for the poor performance of Chinese fighter exports in recent years is the lack of trust from China’s allies in the international arena.

The “falcon” is highly sought after at home, but its sales abroad have hit a wall

The FC-31 “falcon” fighter developed by China’s Shenyang Aircraft Industry Group has recently become a hit, with Chinese media and some military fans speculating that the fighter could become a carrier aircraft for China’s next-generation aircraft carriers after modification, expanding the Chinese navy’s global influence.

However, in the field of international arms exports, this Chinese fourth-generation fighter reveals the dilemma of Chinese weapons in the mid- to high-end international market lack of takers. Analysis suggests that China’s lack of international soft power puts a clear constraint on the export prospects of Chinese military aircraft such as the FC-31.

The FC-31 Fighting Falcon demonstrator made its first public flight performance at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2014. Chinese official media covered the event extensively at the time, emphasizing not only the fighter’s performance but also its export competitiveness.

Chinese military expert Fu Qianzhang said in an airshow special broadcast by China Central Television in December 2014, “By making money from foreigners, accumulating our funds and developing our next generation of warplanes, this path would be very remarkable if we could walk away.”

As it turns out, the road to foreign sales of Chinese military aircraft is not a good one. After a number of high-profile publicity at international airshows, the U.S. F-35 fighter jet as the “imaginary enemy” in the international market failed to meet any substantial intention of buyers.

The FC-31’s ability to open up international sales depends first and foremost on the economic strength of China’s current allies. Like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the FC-31 will be expensive, and there is absolutely no evidence that China can sell an expensive fighter,” Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst and vice president at the Teal Group, an aviation analyst, told the Voice of America. Those core market countries that buy Chinese fighters, Pakistan, Myanmar, North Korea, etc., they are very price sensitive. To sell something like the FC-31, you have to be able to sell it to buyers like Australia, South Korea, Japan and European countries that are willing to agree to that kind of price, and there is absolutely no evidence that China can do that, it doesn’t have that kind of relationship.”

And this is not a problem unique to the “falcon” model. Several of China’s previous “foreign trade aircraft” have also met with a lukewarm reception from the international market. Quality and performance are not the reason, Aboulafia said.

They have certainly been trying to export,” he said. Before the FC-31, the most advanced fighter made for the export market was the J-10 – a very impressive aircraft, and the current European production of existing models, such as the Typhoon, Rafale, exactly the same class, but after 20 years of effort, they have not been able to export an aircraft. “

Asia Times 2019 reports that the same is the fate of other “export-oriented” Chinese warplanes, such as the J-7 fighter-bomber, which has been in production for more than two decades, and the J-8 “F-8IIM, a foreign trade model.

The Thiel Group estimates that the global fighter jet market could total $520 billion in sales in the 2019-2029 decade, but China’s sales record in recent years shows that it is difficult for Chinese fighters to get a share of this huge international market.

According to statistics, the total value of China’s military aircraft exports between 2000 and 2020 is $7.2 billion. During the same period, the United States held the top spot in military aircraft sales, exporting $99.6 billion, while Russia came in second with $61.5 billion in exports. France’s military aircraft exports also more than doubled China’s during this period, reaching $14.7 billion.

The downturn in foreign sales of military aircraft also directly contributed to the inability of China’s warplane industry to develop a more efficient industrial scale. “It’s an inverse relationship: as Chinese aircraft become more advanced, the number of (international) purchases is declining.” Back when they [China] were producing copies of Soviet aircraft, they could build hundreds of them a year,” said Till Group’s Abulafia. But then you look at the J-10 aircraft, they (the Chinese military) have bought hundreds of them for their own use over the last 20 years, and (Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group) builds about 15 to 20 a year, but exports are zero.”

“You compare it to the (U.S.) F-35 program: the U.S. produces more than 160 aircraft a year for the domestic and international market. That’s what you call economies of scale.” Aboulafia said.

In addition, another drag on the export of Chinese warplanes is the imperfection of its engine technology.

Richard Fisher, Jr. a senior fellow at the U.S. Center for International Assessment and Strategy, believes that China will continue to launch export versions of the FC-31. Its success will depend on China’s success in building a reliable turbofan engine,” he told the Voice of America. For more than a decade, China has been testing a medium-thrust turbofan engine, though it is unclear whether it will be production-ready.”

International Arms Sales Falling Instead of Rising

China’s overseas arms sales have fluctuated considerably for more than a decade. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) arms transfer database shows international sales of Chinese weapons in 2020 falling rather than rising from the previous year, worth about $760 million, almost half of what they were in 2019.

SIPRI data show that the largest arms exporters ranked in order during the 2010-2020 period are the United States, Russia, France, and Germany, with China in fifth place.

China’s export destinations are concentrated in Asia, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand as major buyers, and there are markets for Chinese weapons in Africa and South America.

Abramia, vice president of the Thiel Group, recently published an analysis on Foreign Policy’s website titled “The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets.

He told Voice of America, “Frankly, I think the most important reason is that not many countries really want to have a strategic relationship with China. China has used a number of reasons to dictate the international arena and has also clearly set goals that straddle its territorial boundaries. But a lot of people don’t trust China and don’t want to have that kind of (cooperative) relationship with China.”

Aboulafia said China’s relationship with the Philippines is a prime example of the failure of its military aircraft exports. He said the Philippines, under Duterte, has been hoping to take a more pro-China route by reducing its dependence on the United States. The Philippines has not purchased new fighter jets in years, and Chinese military aircraft could have cracked that market, but China’s tense relations with the Philippines in the South China Sea have made it difficult for the Philippines to feel comfortable buying Chinese weapons.

FC-31 may become a carrier-based aircraft for domestic aircraft carriers

The FC-31 has recently reappeared in the spotlight of Chinese official media, sparking speculation that the Chinese military will officially select the falcon as a naval fighter. There are also indications that the Falcon may become the carrier aircraft for China’s next-generation Type 003 aircraft carrier.

Andreas Rupprecht, a German military writer and observer of Chinese military aviation, pointed out in an article in early June that the FC-31 “falcon” fighter jet being developed by Shenyang Aircraft Industry Group was suspected to have appeared on a mock training platform for the Wuhan aircraft carrier.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported in late June that the “falcon” had been officially installed in the Shenyang Aviation Expo Park and was on display to the public.

Fisher, a senior fellow at the U.S. Center for International Assessment and Strategy, said the People’s Liberation Army would buy the fighter and incorporate it into its next-generation aircraft carrier fleet.

“China is apparently assembling a full fleet of aircraft carriers that will include more than four generations of J-15 fighters. The J-35 (another name for the FC-31 Fighting Falcon) will eventually become a fifth-generation fighter. China is also currently testing the ‘Air Marshal-600’ airborne early warning aircraft.” Fisher told Voice of America, “By the middle of this decade, China will be able to build a full fleet of carrier aircraft for its Type 003 non-nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and all subsequent flat-topped conventional takeoff carriers.”

He said China may need about 20 carriers if it is to achieve its goal of global political-military hegemony by mid-century, and a suitably costed fifth-generation stealth aircraft is critical to that goal. “(The FC-31) would give the People’s Liberation Army Navy a good foundation from which to start developing a strong and powerful carrier fleet.”

However, some analysts believe that China’s goals and strategy for developing aircraft carriers are not yet clear, and that the role of carriers currently remains a superficial propaganda function.

Yu Maochun, a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said China’s carriers are currently slow, low-grade and not technically advanced enough.

Yu Maochun told the Voice of America, “Its most fundamental strategic purpose in developing aircraft carriers is problematic, and developing them is more propagandistic in China, and not actually particularly realistic in terms of actual operational needs.”

He said, “As soon as there is any problem in the Taiwan Strait or in the neighboring countries, it will go to demonstrate and show its prowess. The aircraft carrier is not used in offshore operations, it is used in oceanic operations, and the strategic purpose of its aircraft carrier is not so clear.”