PRC has realised that the trade in weapons can serve several Chinese foreign policy and economic objectives
The most crucial variable that explains the robustness of today’s PRC’s defence-industrial base is the Peoples Liberation Army’ (PLA) and its senior leadership’s sustained commitment and patronage of the Chinese defence industry. Virtually, the entirety of China’s major defence industries ranging from space technology to electronics to shipbuilding and synthetic chemicals have come from PLA contractual support to these industries. The penetration of the Chinese military into the country’s economy at the institutional, organisational and ideological level occurred during the most perilous phase of China’s external threat environment between the years 1950 and 1969. The PLA’s influence at the level of policy, ideology, organisation and process continued into the Reform era starting in 1978. The distinctive features of the PRC’s innovative organisational strategy towards national security involved an absolute commitment to self-reliance, despite periodic purchases from abroad and co-production. The defence industry has successfully blended institutions that combined Stalinist top-down mobilisation of resources with an incentive structure that mimics the Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurship characterised by risk-taking, individual incentives, initiative and networks of cooperation among technical experts. Notwithstanding setbacks to broader reform under Xi Jinping, China’s defence industrial base has not suffered any tangible or visible damage. Consequently, the Chinese defence industry has thrived and the latest SIPRI report bears this out in the form of large arms sales for the year 2021. A cursory look at Chart 1 will illustrate why the Chinese defence industry has thrived despite the COVID-19 pandemic and all the supply chain issues that have adversely affected the defence industries of other countries. China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO) saw a surge in sales by 11 percent in 2021 as opposed to 2020, whereas the second-ranked company Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) saw a rise by 9 percent in sales from 2020 to 2021. The third major company to make a gain of 4.2 percent in 2021 in contrast to 2020 was China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) saw a jump in sales by 13 percent from 2020 to 2021. Only China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), albeit by the measure of total sales exceeded CASC and CASIC and which builds Information Technologies and Electronics experienced a fall by 5.6 percent, but then supply-chain disruptions in these technological sectors were among the worst hit worldwide as a result of the pandemic. Chart - 1 Source: Adapted from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Report, 2022 Despite the rapid advances made by the PRC’s defence industry—there are three core areas where the Chinese still face challenges: very advanced electronics, submarine quieting technology and shipbuilding technology in the area of propulsion which involves precision engineering. Although China’s development of conventional submarines is moving from Air-independent propulsion systems to lithium-ion batteries. In due course, Russian assistance in submarine quieting technology will help Beijing reduce the gap with more advanced naval powers such as the US. The Chinese have also made considerable investments in space, cyber, electronic warfare, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and quantum technology. Indeed, the advances made by the Chinese in indigenous defence capabilities and several emerging technologies has precipitated to a large extent the US’ “Third-offset” strategy win a quest to maintain technological superiority over its rivals in specific technology fields such as AI, cyber capabilities, unmanned systems, and machine learning.
Virtually, the entirety of China’s major defence industries ranging from space technology to electronics to shipbuilding and synthetic chemicals have come from PLA contractual support to these industries.
It seems that the PRC has realised that the trade in weapons can serve several Chinese foreign policy and economic objectives. Take the case of Africa, which is rich in hydrocarbons and minerals that are a draw for China’s economy, the world’s second largest after the US. The continent is also important to China, given that Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative aims at connecting Beijing to Africa and Europe through a network of ports, railway lines, power stations and special economic zones. Here, China seeks to bind itself to other one-party states in Africa and makes common cause with them through antipathy with the West. Ahead of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in November 2021, Xi’s address harped on the need to “oppose intervention in domestic affairs, racial discrimination and unilateral sanctions … and translate our common aspirations and interests into joint actions”, alluding to the West that has on several occasions pulled up African governments for violations of human rights. On the pretext of training and upgradation programmes meant for the civil service through initiatives like the ‘China-Africa Action Plan’, China increased the intake of defence personnel. In 2018, China hosted senior military officials from 50 African nations at the China-Africa defence forum, with an aim of expanding its influence among the defence brass. While this is a more formal arrangement, ties with senior military figures in Africa have kept China ahead of the geopolitical curve and manage any fallout of leadership transitions in volatile African nations. For example, the chief of Zimbabwe’s armed forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, was in China and met senior leaders three days before Robert Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest serving leaders was deposed in 2017, sparking speculation as to whether or not Beijing was in the know about the coup. The PRC has been very effective at co-opting, especially senior defence personnel in the developing world. Militaries form the backbone of several developing countries and nominally civilian leaders do require their support. Consequently, the Chinese industry has readily available defence export markets.
On the pretext of training and upgradation programmes meant for the civil service through initiatives like the ‘China-Africa Action Plan’, China increased the intake of defence personnel.
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Kalpit A Mankikar is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme and is based out of ORFs Delhi centre. His research focusses on China specifically looking ...Read More +
Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...Read More +