While the DRDO is struggling with its Light Combat Aircraft and Advanced Light Helicopter, the Chinese Aviation Industrial Corporation is developing over 75 types of aircraft.

“The crux of the Four Modernisations is the mastering of modern science and  technology. Without the high-speed development of science and technology, it is impossible to develop the national economy at high speed.”
— Deng Xiaoping at the National Science Conference, March 1978

Gunpowder was supposedly invented in the 9th Century CE in China, and the earliest record of a written formula for gunpowder appears in the 11th Century Song dynasty text, Wujing Zangyao.

Chinese military forces used gunpowder-based weapons (rockets, guns, cannons) and explosives (grenades and different types of bombs) against the Mongols who attempted to invade and breach city fortifications on China’s northern borders. The first recorded use of a rocket in battle is said to be in 1232 CE against the Mongol hordes at Kai Feng Fu.

China was the world leader in science and technology until the early Qing dynasty (the regime, losing its glory steadily over the centuries, lasted from 1644 to 1912). Chinese discoveries and innovations such as paper-making, printing, the magnetic compass and gunpowder (the Four Great Inventions), besides porcelain, stern-post rudder and lift lock for canals, contributed greatly to the economic development of Asia and Europe.

Things changed in the 19th century, after China was repeatedly defeated by the Western nations, and the restrictive Communist regime post-1949 focused on collectives for society rather than individual effort.

Then came Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which sought to eradicate “bourgeois” influences and attitudes. The scientific community was an easy target. Intellectuals were forced into manual labour. University and academic journals were shut down, most research ceased. For a whole decade, China trained no new scientists and engineers.

It was only after Mao’s death that science and technology were established as one of the fundamentals of the Four Modernisations (the others being agriculture, industry, and national defence) by Deng Xiaoping, who totally reversed the Cultural Revolution policies.

But the scientific community had been reduced to a small number of elderly scientists, often trained abroad before 1949, and some middle-aged personnel with relatively lower educational attainments.

Most of these scientists and engineers were concentrated in the State’s specialised research institutes, in heavy industry, and its military research and military industrial facilities. The latter had the highest standards and the best-trained people. Science and technology flourished under the “two bombs, one satellite” concept: liangdanyixing.

Military research and industry was and continues to be China’s first priority in funding in science and technology. Although the sector remains shrouded in secrecy, its work has resulted in the largely independent development of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, successful launch and recovery of communication satellites, manned space missions and development of anti-satellite weapons.

Very little information on the Chinese military research sector has been made public, and the secrecy was reinforced by locating military research centres in remote deserts and mountainous areas in west China. This isolation from civilian research also ensured that this sector contributed little to the national economy. It was the rapid development in electronics and computer applications in the 1970s and 1980s which finally compelled more synergy between the defence and civil industries.

Today, China is no longer just the world’s low-tech workshop. Manned space ventures, electric cars and the world’s fastest supercomputers, all make it clear that China is ascendant. Its low-emission coal energy, third and fourth generation nuclear reactors, high-voltage transmission lines, alternative energy vehicles, harnessing solar and wind energy, and high-speed trains are either more advanced than those in the West or provide serious competition to Western and American technologies.

Similar significant progress has been made in telecommunication and information technology. Substantial budgetary commitments for research in nanotechnology, new materials and other cutting-edge scientific fields have allowed the country to play a lead role in the next generation of important discoveries. And it has also turned China into an arms exporter.

A recent report in Financial Times quotes the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): “China lifted exports of military weapons and equipment by 143 per cent over the past five years to usurp Germany as the world’s third-largest arms trader…China’s biggest client…was Pakistan…which bought 41 per cent of the country’s exports…In total, 28 per cent of China’s arms exports went to Bangladesh and Myanmar, while further shipments went to 18 African countries.”

However, “China’s most lucrative arms contract over the period 2010-14 was the sale of 50 JF-17 fighters to Pakistan…The JF-17 was developed jointly by Pakistan and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation of China—much of the assembly was also done in Pakistan. The contract is valued at $800m, according to SIPRI. Pakistan has ordered a further 110 aircraft…Other big deals over the past four years include the sale of armoured vehicles and transport and trainer aircraft to Venezuela; three frigates to Algeria; hundreds of anti-ship missiles to Indonesia and armed drones to Nigeria.”

According to observers, before 1980, China provided arms to friendly Third World countries at concessionary prices. Because China transferred arms based on ideological and foreign policy considerations, terms were generous. Around 1980, China decided to sell weapons for profit to absorb excess capacity, make defence enterprises more economically viable, and earn the foreign currency required to purchase foreign military technology. In the 1980s, the defence industry and the PLA established a number of corporations to sell Chinese military hardware and acquire foreign technology.

All this, despite Chinese scientists and scientific managers admitting to serious problems of research creativity, fraud and dishonesty, lax accountability for research expenditure and troubled institutional arrangements.

A report, China’s Progress for Science and Technology Modernisation, prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Commission, reveals that China has launched a “comprehensive effort to become an innovative nation by 2020 and a global scientific power by 2050”. It has positioned itself to reap the benefits of global commercial and scientific networks.

The 2006 Medium to Long-Term Plan for Development of Science and Technology (2005-2020) is the guiding document on innovation policy, and represents an important milestone in China’s scientific modernisation. Under this plan,16 mega projects were identified. One of them is the development of large aircraft. Three projects remain classified.

Military aviation had been neglected, particularly after the Chinese Air Force’s close identification with Minister of Defence Lin Biao during the Cultural Revolution. After Lin Biao’s death in 1971, Mao shredded the PLAAF officer corps and severely disrupted the country’s aviation manufacturing infrastructure.

However, the air force’s critical role as evidenced in the Gulf War and the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, and the use of Precision Guided Munitions spurred a debate on how to modernise and develop Chinese air power.

The US show of force in the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1996, in which the US deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups near Taiwan in response to Chinese military intimidation of Taiwan,  further motivated Beijing to undertake doctrinal reform and institutionalise technology modernisation efforts. The PLAAF’s desire for a strategy of “quick reaction”, “integrated coordination”, and “combat depth” had to be operationalised.

But to execute its air campaigns of “air offensive”, “air defence”, and “air blockade”, it needed aircraft to suit the missions. In October 2008, the government merged the two large aerospace entities AVIC 1 and AVIC 2 (Aviation Industrial Corporation). AVIC, earlier responsible for all aircraft production, civil and military, was split in 2002. With the re-merger, it became the largest state-owned enterprise in China, owning nearly 200 subsidiaries and over 20 listed companies.

AVIC develops series production fighters, fighter bombers, bombers, transport, trainers, reconnaissance aircraft, helicopters, attack aircraft, general aviation aircraft, UAVs, and more. It also develops engines and missiles, such as turboprop engines, turbo-shaft engines, turbojets, turbofans, air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles and ground-to-air missiles. It also provides advanced aviation-weaponry to Chinese military forces. As a major developer and supplier of various aircraft, it will play a key role in the “large aircraft” programme.

The Chengdu and Shenyang aviation firms—both with decades of experience with Soviet/Russian designs—are the two top companies for military aircraft. With the recent rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, these firms are now likely to get access to fourth generation aircraft engines and technology.

So at a time when the Indian DRDO is struggling with its Light Combat Aircraft and Advanced Light Helicopter, the Chinese AVIC is developing over 75 types of aircraft. Make in India, anyone?

This piece appeared in the June 2015 issue of our magazine.

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