China is getting back into the groove of marketing arms at defense exhibitions in Asia, after a long absence because of COVID-19. China had a strong presence at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia, with the biennial event better known as LIMA 2023.
China had both military platforms of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and commercial companies exhibiting at this popular show on the tropical island of Langkawi in the Strait of Malacca. These twin efforts illustrated how China really is a superpower with an ever-expanding footprint in Southeast Asia and beyond. On the apron at Langkawi International Airport were eight J-10C fighters of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) August 1st aerobatic team. It was the first time this team – named for the founding date of the PLA on 1 August 1927 – had performed overseas since COVID hit, or flown its new J-10C fighter aircraft overseas. The PLAAF started operating the J-10C in April 2018, and the single-engine J-10 represents a backbone of the PLAAF.
As for the PLA Navy (PLAN), it dispatched a Type 052D destroyer to LIMA 2023 for the very first time. Anchored offshore, the Type 052D destroyer Zhanjiang was only commissioned in March 2022, so barely a year old. This particular destroyer features a lengthened flight deck (the variant is unofficially called the Type 052DL) so that it can better accommodate Z-20 naval helicopters operated by the PLAN.
Since the first Type 052D warship was commissioned in 2014, a total of 22 have been produced for the PLAN to date. They have not been exported, but the type is being marketed to overseas buyers, as evinced by brochures available at last year’s Zhuhai Airshow in southern China.
One Chinese warship type that has been exported successfully is the Type 054A frigate. Indeed, LIMA 2023 witnessed the maiden visit of a Pakistan Navy (PN) Type 054A/P frigate. The brand new PNS Shah Jahan displacing 4,000 tonnes was on its delivery voyage from Shanghai, after being turned over to the PN in a ceremony on 10 May.
China has built four Type 054A/P Tughril-class frigates for Pakistan via two separate contracts signed in 2017 and 2018. PNS Shah Jahan represented one of the two final two vessels, with Pakistan the only export recipient of the frigate type so far. China has enjoyed great success in arms sales to Southeast Asia too. Indeed, Malaysia, the host of LIMA 2023, showcased the two Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) – KD Keris and KD Rencong – of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN). These 68m-long vessels were constructed by China and commissioned from 2020 to 2022; they marked the first time that Malaysia had turned to China for new warships.
Interestingly, the second pair of LMS was supposed to be constructed in Malaysia by Boustead Naval Shipyard, but that plan was changed due to the domestic shipbuilder’s woes in constructing six frigates in conjunction with French shipbuilder Naval Group. China ultimately built all four LMS, instead of the first two as originally conceived. Nonetheless, the RMN told ANI that Malaysia will look elsewhere for a second batch of LMS. The first batch of Chinese LMS has experienced problems in heavy seas because of their size, plus they are not particularly capable in terms of weaponry or payload capacity. Therefore, Malaysia is looking for a Western-built LMS that is larger and heavier, with Turkish and European contenders leading the way.
Elsewhere in Asia, China recently delivered a Type 071E landing platform dock – naval terminology for an amphibious warfare ship that possesses a flight deck and an internal well deck that accommodates landing craft or hovercraft – on 17 April. The 20,000-tonne vessel HTMS Chang arrived in Thailand later that month. This Thai sale was significant as it was the largest warship China has ever sold overseas. Thailand has turned into a major customer for Chinese defense equipment, buying tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, amphibious assault vehicles, surface-to-air- missiles, rocket launchers and more.
However, the junta government in Bangkok is paying a price for its close relations with China. In May, the US Department of Defense formally declined Thailand’s ambition to buy F-35A fighters. Robert F. Gordec, US Ambassador to Thailand, informed Thailand of this decision recently, citing a US assessment that the Thai air force does not possess the necessary infrastructure, airbase security, runways, maintenance capabilities and personnel to operate the high-tech F-35A. Likely the ambassador was just being polite – of more concern would be Thailand’s close links with China, despite it being a treaty ally with the USA. Washington DC instead offered Thailand F-16 Block 70 or F-15E fighters, and promised to consider Thailand’s case in ten years’ time.
Returning to LIMA 2023, most of the large Chinese state-owned defense conglomerates were present. These included Norinco that specializes in land equipment; China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) focusing on electronic equipment such as radars; China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC); and China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation. The latter is an umbrella defense company that represents other companies for defense exports.
Most products exhibited by these companies – generally denoted by scale models and mock-ups – have been seen before. However, of interest was a model of an S26T diesel-electric submarine displayed in the CSSC booth. The model has been seen plenty of times before, for CSSC is building one such submarine for the Royal Thai Navy (RTN).
ANI asked a company representative how this submarine contract is proceeding, and was told, “Everything is going smoothly.” This goes to show just how untrustworthy Chinese sales pitches are, for this project is mired in difficulties. When the USD 430 million contract was signed in 2017, China and Thailand assumed this submarine – of which a second and third could be ordered in the future – would be powered by German-built engines. The propulsion units in question were MTU 12V 396 SE84 engines, but Germany decided to ban the sale of such engines to China, even though their ultimate destination is Thailand.
Germany cited an EU arms embargo, although the country has not bothered to enforce such sanctions on China before now. The PLAN is a lucrative customer for German submarine and warship engines, but what has changed is greater scrutiny on arms embargoes to places like China and Russia after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
With Germany refusing to grant an export license for these MTU engines, CSSC has been scrambling around to offer indigenous Chinese power plants instead. This solution will prove less than satisfactory for Thailand, and Beijing is now trying to convince the customer to accept its unproven alternative. If Bangkok cannot be persuaded, China faces the very real prospect of having this submarine sale cancelled for breach of contract. More than 50% of the 1,850-tonne S26T has been completed, after first steel was cut on 4 September 2018.
A spokesman for the RTN said, “Although the submarine procurement project may have some obstacles, we will try to solve the problem as best as possible, and affirm that every project undertaken by the Royal Thai Navy is transparent and verifiable…” The Pakistan Navy was planning to use the same MTU engines on its eight Chinese- designed Hangor-class submarines. However, with that engine sale also blocked by the German government, Pakistan has reportedly agreed for China to fit indigenous CHD620 engines instead.
Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European countries like Germany have belatedly cracked down on the transfer of military technologies to Russia and China. As can be seen from its strong presence at LIMA 2023, China has made impressive headway in the pursuit of arms sales in Southeast Asia and beyond. Unfortunately, this has not translated into any softening of its belligerent behaviour in places like the South China Sea, nor in its loose control over rogue Chinese vessels.
For example, even as LIMA 2023 was being held, an illegal Chinese salvage operation was occurring off the Malaysian coast inside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Chinese vessel was salvaging scrap steel, aluminum and brass from World War II wrecks, namely the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse.
Both warships were sunk by Japan on 10 December 1941, with the loss of 840 lives. The dredging crane Chuan Hong 68 was bringing up scrap metal from these wrecks, but in so doing, plundering war graves. China is particularly interested in the high- quality steel of such wrecks since it was produced before nuclear weapons were detonated. Such “low background steel” is ideal for making sensitive particle detectors, Geiger counters and the like. Chuan Hong 68 is also wanted by the Indonesian authorities for plundering the remains of sunken Dutch warships in the Java Sea.
Rather surprisingly for the normally docile Kuala Lumpur government, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) swiftly detained the China-registered Chuan Hong 68 and its 32-man crew for failing to possess an anchoring permit. The MMEA found war-era scrap metal and cannon shells aboard the grab dredger. Simultaneously, another Chinese research vessel was inside Vietnam’s EEZ, escorted by five and sometimes as many as twelve Chinese vessels. This was the most significant intrusion in the area since 2019, which led to a three-month standoff between China and Vietnam at that time. Xiang Yang Hong 10 entered Vietnam’s EEZ on 7 May, close to gas blocks operated by Russian firms.
Mao Ning, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, assured nobody by saying, “Relevant ships of China carry out normal activities under China’s jurisdiction. It is legitimate and lawful, and there is no issue of entering other countries’ exclusive economic zones.”
Later, another Chinese research vessel, Jia Geng, entered Vietnam’s EEZ in the South China Sea. This is part of Beijing’s doubling down on efforts to harass Vietnam’s exploration for oil and gas in the Vanguard Bank area. Elsewhere, the Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi Liuhao intruded without authorization into Palau’s EEZ in the Western Pacific. It entered on 24 May, just two days after the USA and Palau concluded a bilateral Compact of Free Association. Indeed, this trespass could be interpreted as a mark of China’s displeasure at the agreement.
The path of this survey ship indicates it may be interested in the SEA-US undersea cable, which connects Palau to Guam and the Philippines. David Panuelo, former president of the Federated States of Micronesia, had previously warned that China had an unhealthy interest in Palau’s marine resources and telecom cables. According to Article 246 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal states “have the right to regulate, authorize and conduct marine scientific research in their EEZ and on their continental shelf”.
This is logical, but the same UNCLOS article goes on to say: “Coastal states shall, in normal circumstances, grant their consent for marine scientific research projects by other states or competent international organizations in their EEZ or on their continental shelf to be carried out in accordance with this Convention exclusively for peaceful purposes and in order to increase scientific knowledge of the marine environment for the benefit of all mankind.”
China might be a signatory to UNCLOS, but it arrogantly decrees it is above such laws. Article 9 of the 1998 Law of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the EEZ and the Continental Shelf, says, “Marine scientific research by any international organization, foreign organization and individual in the EEZ and the continental shelf of the PRC must be subject to the approval of the competent authorities of the PRC and must conform to the laws and regulations of the PRC.” In other words, China has full veto over international law, to which it is a signatory.
Nor does China feel the need to gain permission from others to conduct research in the EEZs of sovereign states. China is a powerful force on the global arms market, and the PLA is foraying farther afield. Unfortunately, as part of this relentless growth, Beijing is unafraid to run roughshod over those smaller than itself. Although China’s motto is “win-win relationships”, its behaviour demonstrates that “might is right” is a far more accurate description.