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The Newest Chinese Weapons Empower Rogue States

April 19, 2020

The PHL-03 is a long-range rocket artillery system. Via China Military Online.

Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949 it has maintained vigorous arms exports to ideological allies and friends. The scale of this lethal commerce remains misunderstood until the present although it’s best to recall the many civil wars and “revolutions” in the late 20th century that involved the use of Chinese-made weapons. Of course, it isn’t surprising that genocidal tyrants and their illiberal regimes are the most loyal customers for Beijing’s hardware. Recall how Albania’s Enver Hoxha defied both NATO and the Warsaw Pact by fortifying his country; an effort only made possible with unfailing Chinese support. Even North Korea’s advances with its weapons of mass destruction would not be possible without access to Chinese scientific expertise.

Since the 1990s, however, the qualitative and quantitative change in Chinese military products meant some very bad characters with cash to spare can buy advanced weapons that either match or surpass the arsenals maintained by countries allied with the US. To understand the consequences of this trend imagine a near future where a fiercely nationalistic Venezuelan autocrat, having revived his country’s fortunes, rebuilds the armed forces with surplus oil revenue. Then as now, China and Russia are the suppliers of choice, and it’s the Chinese technology–from advanced radars to killer drones–that gives leaders in the Western Hemisphere pause. If Venezuela then goes as far as acquiring intermediate-range ballistic or cruise missiles these pose a threat the US can’t ignore.

This scenario may seem far-fetched but the point is China is now equipped to challenge Western hegemony by pursuing arms exports wherever it finds end users. Here are some of those products that are game changers for rogue states.


The dazzling variety of anti-aircraft weapons manufactured by China’s military-industrial sector is unprecedented. Aside from improved copies of foreign systems, from Soviet Guidelines to Swiss Oerlikons, an entire generation of indigenous air defenses are now available to whoever needs them. Besides several types of MANPADS and different vehicle based SAMs far more capable choices like the long-range HQ-9/9B, with the export designation FD-2000, allow countries to defend their airspace from attack. The HQ-9/9B is analogous to the Russian S-300PMU2 and combines a powerful tracking and target acquisition radar with missiles that can eliminate any type of aircraft at ranges beyond 200 kilometers. Two Central Asian states–Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan–have acquired the HQ-9 while longtime China ally Pakistan is still negotiating for a prospective batch.


The last two decades saw China enlarge its selection of exportable tracked and wheeled fighting vehicles. Perhaps the most adaptable APC is an 8×8 model co-produced by Norinco and Poly Technologies whose characteristics surpasses its peers in Asia and Europe. Fully amphibious and well-armored the 8×8 VN1, or “Snow Leopard” when in PLA use, packs a mean punch with its 30mm cannon in either manned or unmanned turrets. Alternative weapon systems are offered such as box launchers for eight NLOS missiles, tandem anti-aircraft guns, and artillery modules. The VN1 converted to a wheeled tank with a 105mm main gun is the ST1. The most powerful variant features a 155mm howitzer and turret developed by Norinco mounted on the VN1’s hull.

If an 8×8 APC isn’t suited for an end user’s needs Norinco has the excellent VN2C 6×6 APC and its variants such as an assault gun, a mobile mortar, and a short-range air defense system. Chinese-made MRAPs are equally plentiful.


Another niche in the global arms market that’s been flooded with Chinese-made systems are self-propelled howitzers. Although Chinese state-owned conglomerates such as Norinco have their own product line of current-generation towed artillery pieces their mobile systems have enjoyed more development. The PLZ-45/05 in particular is a real standout. Armed with a 45 caliber 155mm main gun able to fire multiple types of ammunition, it matches the best tracked self-propelled artillery systems in Asia or Europe. The PLZ-45 is only a slight success, however, as its current operators are Algeria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Beyond the PLZ-45 a flagrant disregard for supply-and-demand has caused Chinese military industries to roll out artillery systems in every imaginable configuration.

Other artillery systems exported by China are truck howitzers like the SH15 or SH-15 and 105mm, 122mm, 130mm, and 152mm towed howitzers with myriad improvements.

President Xi Jinping inspects the cockpit of a Z-10 attack helicopter.


For decades China’s state-owned aerospace manufacturers were unable to develop homegrown rotorcraft that weren’t plagued by technical faults. Thanks to the adoption of French and US technology in the 1980s this problem was mitigated and the PLA received its cherished Z-8 (Aerospatiale Super Frelon) and Z-9 (Aerospatiale Dauphin) helicopters that are in service until the present. A very late arrival was the Z-10, which has the distinction of being China’s first genuine attack helicopter, and after years of further improvements it’s now ready for export abroad. During the biennial Zhuhai Air Show a Z-10 with a desert tan color scheme was on static display in case potential end users from Africa and the Middle East were around.

The Z-10 is able to carry an array of munitions on its wing stubs and has an oscillating 30mm cannon under its nose. A true multirole platform, it’s equipped for missions as diverse as close air support, reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as protecting vital locations like supply depots and transport hubs. Pakistan is deemed the likeliest client of the Z-10 to augment its aging fleet of US-made Cobra gunships.


The year 2019 was a turning point for Chinese military technology. With the advent of its jet-powered stealth drones it had surpassed the US in a crucial niche that may decide a future confrontation. As if this weren’t worrying, self-styled Chinese “allies” have several jet-powered UCAVs that are now ready for export and there are more choices besides. With Israeli and US drone sales under strict regulations Chinese aerospace manufactures like CATIC have almost no competition when it comes to propeller-driven combat drones. The Wing Loong I-D and its sibling the Wing Loong II are the best alternatives to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper or Gray Eagle and excel at long-range strike missions. Both Wing Loongs are combat proven and end users have the option of purchasing them in bulk.

There are so many fixed wing Chinese drones available for export right now and a lot of them can kill people.


Fixed wing combat aircraft is another niche where China’s aerospace manufacturers are thriving. The 2010s marked a historic breakthrough as the same manufacturers graduated from assembling dated copies of foreign models and introduced their own designs. A genuine success was the AVIC-CATIC JF-17 or FC-1 (pictured above) whose production was transferred to Pakistan’s own sprawling government aerospace company. The single engine fighter is showing promise as a cost-effective investment for budget conscious air forces. Myanmar is the second known customer of the JF-17 and the model’s next milestone could be in Africa.

CATIC boasts a formidable inventory of fighter jets such as the stealthy twin engine FC-31 (J-31), the twin engine FBC-1 (JH-7) fighter bomber, and the single engine FC-20A (J-10C). The trainer jets offered by CATIC like the twin engine L-15 and single engine FTC-2000G are convertible to light fighters. CATIC, by the way, is the first Asian aerospace entity allowed to export a stealth fighter jet.


China is an unacknowledged leader in rocket artillery systems and began exporting them as far back as the 1960s. Once again it’s Norinco’s catalog that stands out for its breadth and ridiculous scale. Its newest multiple launch system is the SR5 that was unveiled just two short years ago. Eschewing the usual stack of launch tubes on a truck bed the SR5 imitates the Brazilian ASTROS and the US HIMARS by having a modular container that fits different payloads. The munitions span standard 122mm Grad rockets to short-range ballistic missiles. The SR5 has since found at least three end users: Algeria, Laos, and the UAE. Norinco’s proliferation of large diameter rocket artillery is deeper than imagined. Belarus, Pakistan, and Turkey were able to manufacture their own long-range rocket artillery systems with illicit Chinese assistance.

As if this wasn’t bad enough what could be the most destructive large diameter rocket artillery system to date is made in China and for sale under the brand name AR3.


In 1987 oil-rich Saudi Arabia paid billions for Chinese DF-3 ICBMs and suffered no consequences. The sale was unprecedented and quite baffling–the Saudis had no nuclear warheads of their own. Worse, China went ahead and transferred missile technology to the Saudi’s arch-nemesis Iran a few years later, with dire long-term consequences. These transactions exposed a terrible open secret of China’s arms export policies. Whatever semblance of “controls” or sound judgement Beijing pretended to exert these could be waived for a price. It isn’t surprising how China, more than any country, fuels regional tensions in many hotspots by selling its missile technology. Pictured above is Norinco’s own 8×8 launcher vehicle for its M20 SRBMs but other Chinese manufacturers have their own systems ready for export at a moment’s notice. Recall when Qatar was ostracized by its neighbors the gas-rich kingdom managed to buy road mobile SRBMs in record time. Don’t forget how Turkey and Syria gave their respective militaries a boost with locally made SRBMs developed with China’s help.

Having a track record this shady means China is a hall-of-fame missile proliferator that cares little for potential outcomes.


So what’s stopping Chinese military-industrial enterprises from selling nuclear-capable missiles? Not much, to be honest. During the 2000s a joint venture with all-weather friend Pakistan led to the creation of the Babur cruise missile (named after the Mughal emperor) that has both ground and sea-launched variants. The PLAAF and PLAN have multitudes of cruise missiles for their own use and the imbalance has gotten so bad the US Marine Corps (USMC) want to acquire their own road mobile missiles just in case they must fight the Chinese navy over some Pacific island. The bottom line is Chinese missiles are bleeding edge and their range and striking power has the Pentagon worried.

The DF-10/10A pictured above is a land attack cruise missile with a range of 2,000 km. Its exportable variant could be under wraps for now but its implications are dire. In the meantime other Chinese cruise missiles like the supersonic CX-1 and HD-1 are now for sale.


Naval power has long been a weakness of the People’s Republic. Well, at least until the late 1990s because the shipbuilding spree that’s been going on for 20 years has made the PLAN the world’s largest maritime warfare branch and the frantic pace of its expansion won’t stop until Beijing is sure it can overwhelm the US Navy and its allies. An underappreciated aspect of Chinese naval strength are its submarines. Since generosity is a hallmark of China’s behavior towards its friends its submarine exports goes back decades. Egypt, North Korea, and Syria were some of the earliest recipients of Chinese submarines although these were inferior Romeo-class vessels.

In 2015 Thailand finalized a deal for three S26T diesel-electric submarines from CSIC, a state-owned shipyard. The S26T’s gross 3,600 tons each and have ultra-silent propulsion systems. Around the same time China and Pakistan agreed on a co-production arrangement for eight diesel-electric submarines similar to those ordered by Thailand. A lot of other navies will look for affordable submarines in the 2020s and when European choices are nixed China’s shipyards are there, waiting.


This decade saw China establish itself as a world leader in the production of main battle tanks or MBTs thanks to Norinco’s aggressive push for a stronger export catalog. Its VT4 or MBT 3000 rivals the Russian T-90S, which is successful thanks to tepid demand for expensive NATO tanks, and enjoys strong sales prospects in three continents. Armed with a 125mm cannon fed by an autoloader and running on a 1,500 horsepower engine the VT4 strikes a good balance when it comes to firepower and mobility. Its protection level is nothing to scoff at either with a mix of reactive armor, spaced armor, slat armor, and a passive ant-missile system. A remote weapon station for a 12.7mm heavy machine gun is found on the back of the turret as well. The VT4 isn’t the same as the PLA’s Type 99/99A MBT despite a few similarities. VT4’s have been snapped up by Nigeria and Thailand while Pakistan might buy a few hundred for its army soon.

Norinco has five kinds of tanks for sale: the VT1 (Type 90-II), the VT2 (Type 96), the VT3 (upgraded Type 59/69), the VT4, and the VT5 (Type 15 light tank).


The weapon systems presented here are a mere glimpse of a few military products China is ready to export. The true size of its output is staggering now that overproduction has swamped China’s military-industrial sector; these companies are able to produce so much even as actual demand for their offerings haven’t materialized yet. This may look like a silver lining but the worst part is low end Chinese military products–the Type 56 assault rifle and Type 69 rocket launcher come to mind–are fixtures in the world’s ongoing wars where they’re used either by flagrant human rights violators or terrorist groups. Now that a global pandemic is underway and threatens to destabilize relations between China and the West, thinking about serious policies to control the spread of Chinese-made weapons must lead somewhere impactful. If the basic stuff already fuels so much instability, what more the high tech ones?

And if rogue states embrace further militarization and become too powerful what stops them from acting on their worst tendencies?

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