China: An economic behemoth amps up its firepower

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I have a moderately twisted sense of humor. Charles Addams' grim cartoons make me laugh out loud, I think that Edward Gorey is one of the best children's book writers in existence, and I sometimes find myself giggling at Franz Kafka's short stories. I read Romeo and Juliet for the jokes and keep praying for a massive derailment every time my daughter puts in her Thomas the Tank Engine video.

Like I said, I'm a little twisted.

This might help explain why I found myself giggling at a recent Financial Times article. For the last ten years, apparently, China has imported massive quantities of weapons from Russia; these have included guns, fighter jets, and missiles. In 2007, however, China's imports of foreign-made arms dropped by more than 60%. Basically, China has let Russia finish delivery on most of its big contracts, but has not renewed the contracts or opened new ones.

Part of the reason for this change is the fact that Russian weapons are just not all that reliable. For example, Algeria recently returned fifteen MIG 29 fighter jets that it had purchased from Russia, stating that some of the components in the jets were of "inferior quality."

On the one hand, this is the perfect time for a little bit of cross-cultural schadenfreude. After all, Russia is the second-largest arms exporter in the world; the United States is the first. There is a certain amount of grim pleasure that can be gleaned by watching our major competitor lose its largest client.
On the other hand, it's not as if China is going to come knocking at our door. The biggest reason that they have stopped buying arms from Russia is the fact that they are amping up their own military weapons industry, and many of their products are re-engineered versions of Russian weapons systems. For example, the Chinese J-11B fighter is based on the Russian Sukhoi Su 27, but is almost entirely constructed from Chinese-made parts.

Does this sound familiar? Those of us who were around in the eighties and early nineties probably remember the impressive Chinese ability to reverse engineer technologies from other countries and release comparable versions at greatly reduced rates. Today, of course, the process is pretty much complete, and it's almost impossible to find a reasonably-priced DVD player that wasn't made in China.

While it's a little amusing to see China producing its own version of Russian fighter planes, it's also somewhat discomforting, particularly when we consider that they might very well begin selling these weapons to other countries. All in all, it's not hard to imagine a future in which they will begin to challenge the world's biggest arms exporter.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go brush up on my Chinese. Zàijiàn!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. When he says "goodbye" in Chinese, his wife usually says "Gesundheit."

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