The Christmas/New Year period has been busy for those who watch Chinese military developments. For pure symbolic power, it was impossible to beat the first publicity photos of a Chinese carrier battlegroup, featuring not only China's sole carrier, the Liaoning, but various powerful escort ships (see below). A few days later, shots emerged of the carrier-borne J-15 fighter carrying a new type of pod never seen before on the J-15, one that allows it to refuel other J-15s in flight and thereby extend their combat range.
Then there were photos of a new strike aircraft dubbed the J-16, and the first photos of a new class of medium-lift helicopter called the Z-20.
Each new piece of evidence of China's military-technological development is impressive, yet all of the examples listed above have one thing in common: a high degree of foreign content, and not always obtained with permission. The Liaoning, for instance, is a refurbished Russian carrier; the J-15's refueling pod looks like an exact copy of a Russian system; the J-16 is based closely on the Russian Su-30, and the Z-20 looks unerringly like the US Blackhawk, of which China obtained a couple of dozen in the late 1980s.
The problem of illegal copying of foreign military systems in China goes beyond the military sphere; German and Japanese high-speed train companies have also complained of illegal use of their designs by Chinese companies.
It reveals both the limits of Chinese technology and the scale of China's ambitions, with Chinese authorities seemingly regarding intellectual property laws as a quaint artifact. Given the size of the Chinese market, this calculation has turned out to be correct. Companies such as the Russian military aircraft maker Sukhoi have on the whole chosen not to press their grievances over intellectual property too far, lest they be locked out of future Chinese orders.
Thomas Fingar argued last year that China’s ability to move from imitation to innovation is yet to be demonstrated. And James Fallows has argued that the low-hanging fruit of China’s industrial development has now largely been picked. In order to continue its growth and meet its own ambitions of high-end, high-tech innovation, China must move to a 'different industrial organization, built upon a different research base, bolstered by different intellectual property laws, and run with a different management approach.'
It is a task perhaps just as formidable, if not more so, than the transformation which has taken China this far over the last thirty years. If the aerospace sector is any guide, China seems eager to make the move to the next stage of its industrial development, and there are clear indications in the military aviation field that China is making the transition. While there is obvious copying going on, most of the systems mentioned above also have indigenous content that improves baseline performance.
There are other examples: last year China revealed the indigenous Y-20 large transport aircraft and recently we saw the first photos of a home-made engine for that plane. The J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters also both owe a great deal to foreign influences, but they are more than crude copies. And China is systematically addressing weaknesses in its broader aerospace sector, with news emerging last February of a $16 billion investment in the aero engine sector, where China is especially weak.