DUBAI: Across the world, countries locked out of purchasing US-made drones are being wooed by Chinese arms dealers, who are world’s main distributors of armed drones.
“The Chinese product now doesn’t lack technology, it only lacks market share,” said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military analyst and former lecturer at the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force University of Engineering. “And the United States restricting its arms exports is precisely what gives China a great opportunity.”
The sales are helping to expand Chinese influence across a region vital to American security interests.
“It’s a hedging strategy and the Chinese will look to benefit from that,” said Douglas Barrie, an airpower specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
US drones were first used in Yemen to kill suspected Al-Qaeda militants in 2002.
One of the biggest Chinese exports is the Cai-Hong, or Rainbow, series made by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., or CASC, the largest contractor for the Chinese space program.
CASC’s CH-4 and CH-5 models are on a par with San Diego-based General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper drones, and much cheaper. Independent analysts say the Chinese models lag behind their American counterparts but the technology is good enough to justify the price tag, which might be half or less.
A CASC executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists, said cutting-edge US models such as Boeing Co.’s Stingray, introduced this year for the US Navy, still hold a technological advantage.
“In recent years, all types of drones have proven their value and importance through a high degree of use in warfare, and the military has noticed,” said the top CASC executive. “Many countries are now speeding up the development for these weapons systems, including China.”
During President Xi Jinping’s five years in power, China has stepped up spending on stealth fighters and aircraft carriers for its own military, while boosting sales of advanced equipment such as attack submarines to close allies.
China still lags behind the US, Russia, France, and Germany in total arms sales but it is catching up. Chinese arms exports rose by 38 percent in 2008-12 and 2013-17, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks the global arms trade.
With China’s drone sales booming, there is growing pressure from US arms makers to remove restrictions to let them catch up.