The People’s Republic of China has become a major African trading partner, becoming a bulk consumer of raw materials and bringing wealth as well as development in its wake – particularly there where it has invested in mining and other forms of resources extraction. Well, wealth for some.
But China has also brought poverty. In what many commentators call neo-colonialism, China has aggressively moved into the African marketplace, using its massively subsidised, incredibly productive industry to flood the continent with goods cheap and dear, shoddy and quality. In the case of the textile industry – in SA and in many other parts of Africa – this has led to layoffs and factory closures, in effect de-industrialisation.
The Chinese have been industrious in the armaments field too. After a modest start and much experience at reverse engineering, the Chinese defence industry now manufacture a nearly complete range of equipment, including nuclear weapons (developed themselves), space rockets and missiles (copied and improved-on Russian and Western designs), ships, planes, tanks, tents, the lot.
As far as this observer can see, the only item not yet in the catalogues on display at Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) in Cape Town last month was mine protected vehicles. Yes, the Chinese were there, and as a report published on these pages some days ago recount, they are becoming a significant market force, especially at the lower ends of the market.
The Sino-Pakistani JL-8/K8 fighter trainer, an aircraft reminiscent of the BAE Systems Hawk, has made substantial inroads in the aviation market, already serving with Egypt, Ghana, Namibia, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
We can certainly expect this trend to continue. In fact, it is likely to escalate as the Chinese push increasingly sophisticated and quality equipment at cutthroat prices.
What was apparent at AAD is how much of this equipment is of Western descent, and one cannot but help to wonder if the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) rue the day they celebrated with Champagne that pivotal Chinese deal. In other words, are the products licence-manufactured with royalties and all that flowing back to the OEM, or are they “Chinese copies”?
The China North Industries Corporation, known as Norinco, manufactures the AF902 FCS 35mm gun air defence system that is more than reminiscent of the Oerlikon GDF; their truck-mounted LD2000 ground-based close-in weapon system looks like a Thales Goalkeeper, down to the 30mm Gatling gun. The China National Precision Machinery Import & Export Corporation’s PW unmanned aerial system has an Israeli flavour while the C701 and C802 antiship missiles jog the memory as Exocet clones: not that one is suggesting they are… Nomenclature aside, the company’s FM-90N air defence missile is a known derivative of the French Crotale, developed for SA in the 1970s and deployed by the Air Force as the Cactus. The FM-90N is thus a cousin of the Umkhonto.
Noteworthy too are Norinco’s 40mm automatic grenade launchers and its pump-action 38mm six-shot multiple grenade launcher, the latter meant for riot control duty.
It is an irony therefore that a raft of European companies are now competing against Chinese variants of their own products.
Where in this lies the danger for the SA defence-related industry?
Well, a number of SA companies are now looking at China as their next market. The Chinese are discerning buyers and have money. SA with its many niche technologies, not least of which are mine protected vehicles, offer the People’s Liberation Army many an interesting product.
But then what? As a section of our population is wont to say: ”Watch out, my China!”