In recent years, China has sold and exported weapons to more than 40 countries worldwide. A growing problem has been arising, however, concerning the quality, safety, and performance of this equipment, global research organization RAND Corporation indicated in a June report.
“Many countries acquiring Chinese military equipment for the first time are finding that certification standards are lower than in the West, where there are standards of excellence shared by NATO countries, which endorse the certification of technologies,” Andrei Serbin, a geopolitical intelligence expert and director of the Argentine think tank CRIES, told Diálogo on July 11. “China doesn’t have a system that comes even close to that.”
Despite the initial promise, Chinese military equipment fails to pass post-delivery tests, which leaves purchasing countries in a precarious position, without the expected level of security and depleting their military budgets, Serbin said.
The lack of technological compatibility with Chinese military equipment is also costly. Recipient countries lack trained personnel to solve problems and face difficulties in obtaining spare parts. Chinese military exports mainly go to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and South America.
In specific instances, the Nigerian Army experienced numerous technical problems with China’s F-7 aircraft, which were delivered starting in 2009. Nearly all of the aircraft were lost in accidents and by 2020, of the remaining 9, 7 had to be returned to China for in-depth maintenance and repair, RAND indicated.
Most of the Chinese JF-17 fighter jets that Burma acquired in 2022 were grounded due to serious technical failures, including structural cracks. These aircraft proved unsuitable for use by the Burma Army, Burmese news site The Irrawaddy reported.
In 2022 Pakistan, the largest importer of Chinese military equipment, expressed its annoyance with the Chinese F-22P frigates it purchased. According to Italy-based Center for Geopolitics and International Relations Studies, flaws were found in the ships’ imaging device, infrared sensor system, and radars.
The Bangladesh Air Force reported problems with the firing of munitions loaded on the Chinese K-8W aircraft shortly after they were delivered in 2020. Repeated requests to Beijing for assistance went unheeded, Eureporter news site reported in March 2021.
China shows little commitment to maintaining and repairing the equipment it sells, forcing some countries to seek help from third parties. For example, Burma teamed up with Pakistani technicians to fix technical problems with the JF-17, which was China’s responsibility. These delays affect the military modernization timeline of purchasing countries, RAND said.
“Everything the Chinese sell is backward technology that they copied from the West,” Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, director of the Miami-based Inter-American Institute for Democracy, told Diálogo on July 9. “We are not going to see that there is a Chinese initiative in technological development.”
“Beijing does not have its own technological development, because that costs a lot of money,” Sánchez Berzaín added. When some new technology comes out in the U.S., China quickly retro-engineers it and presents their pirated copy within months, he said.
According to Serbin, China as an option can be advantageous for many countries, for several reasons. “First, it does not impose technical or technological limitations on the introduction of new applied sciences in different regions, which gives more flexibility to interested countries.” It offers shoddy products but at low prices.
In addition, China gives favorable financing conditions, which represents a significant advantage for countries facing chronic economic and social crises. “This financing is not only an economic decision, but also a political one on the part of the Chinese government,” Serbin said.
In South America, the Argentine Ministry of Defense is evaluating the possible acquisition of 12 JF-17 Thunder fighter jets from China to replace the Mirage fighter jets of the Argentine Air Force (FAA), which were decommissioned in 2016, Argentine daily La Nación reported on May 31.
“China did not consider the JF-17s in its arsenal, which indicates something wrong about the system. It initially used a Russian engine, but it should use a Chinese one now. China is late to high-performance engines, so there may be questions about its technology,” Serbin said.
The JF-17 avionics also “consistently exhibit subpar performance and has been plagued with several operational problems,” the Taiwan Times reported.
All of which “makes it especially difficult to evaluate Chinese equipment and to ensure the quality of the materials purchased,” Serbin concluded. “This problem should not be underestimated, as [it is] critical for a country to assess whether the equipment it is buying actually meets the necessary safety and efficiency requirements.”