Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2012

Buy, Build or Steal: China's Quest for Advanced Military Aviation Technologies

Phillip C. Saunders, Joshua K. Wiseman

December 2011

Institute for National Strategic Studies


Although China continues to lag approximately two decades behind the world's most sophisticated air forces in terms of its ability to develop and produce fighter aircraft and other complex aerospace systems, it has moved over time from absolute reliance on other countries for military aviation technology to a position where a more diverse array of strategies can be pursued. Steps taken in the late 1990s to reform China's military aviation sector demonstrated an understanding of the problems inherent in high-technology acquisition, and an effort to move forward. However, a decade later it remains unclear how effective these reforms have been. Where are the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and China's military aviation industry headed? What obstacles must be overcome for China to join the exclusive ranks of those nations possessing sophisticated air forces and aviation industries capable of producing world-class aircraft? Phillip C. Saunders and Joshua K. Wiseman's study identifies potential aviation technology development and procurement strategies, presents a general model of the options available to developing countries, and applies that model to explain Chinese procurement and aviation technology acquisition efforts over the last 60 years. The model articulates three main technology procurement avenues: purchase (buy), indigenous development (build), and espionage (steal), and three subavenues: reverse engineering (combining buy/steal and build), coproduction (combining buy and build), and codevelopment (combining buy and build, with an emphasis on build). It examines the costs, benefits, and tradeoffs inherent in each approach. Producing state-of-the-art fighters requires an aviation industry to master a range of highly advanced, military-specific technologies. The historical development of China's military aviation industry reflects an ongoing tension between the desire for self-reliance in defense and the need for access to advanced foreign technologies. China's legitimate access to cutting-edge Western military technologies will likely remain curtailed and Russian reluctance to supply advanced military technologies will likely grow.