- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - A government-backed science group says many of China’s homemade weapons systems are world-class, reflecting the defense industry’s new confidence and underscoring its ambitions of becoming a major arms exporter.

Steady advances have produced a solid foundation for Chinese-made armored fighting vehicles, missile systems and other weaponry, according to a report by the government’s China Association for Science and Technology.

“In some areas, Chinese weapons have either achieved or are very close to achieving international advanced standards,” the report said, without giving details.

Long reliant on Russia for advanced military hardware, China has invested heavily in its domestic defense industry in recent years, notching up breakthroughs such as the J-10 jet fighter and DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile. China already makes licensed versions of the Russian S-27 fighter jet, but claims to have mastered the technology to make its own advanced aircraft.

Progress has been spurred by the steady growth of military spending _ last year the budget jumped 17.6 percent to 417.8 billion yuan ($61 billion) _ drawing concern over China’s intentions from the U.S. and neighbors like Japan.

Beijing insists it intends no aggression and says much of the spending has gone into upgrading weapons, uniforms, training and living standards for the 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army.

As an arms exporter, China has long serviced customers in the developing world, including isolated dictatorships like Sudan and Zimbabwe, with simple, cheap technology such as China’s version of the Kalashnikov rifle and the JL-8 jet trainer developed jointly with Pakistan.

Advances in technology may allow it to expand that customer base at lower prices than similar technology sold by Russia, France, Britain or the U.S.

China undertook sweeping reforms of the defense industry in the late 1990s to introduce competition and better efficiency, but still releases little solid data about the size and scale of its arms production.

The sprawling but often poorly trained and equipped PLA used to keep its equipment hidden from sight, leading to speculation by foreign military observers that its technical level was so low it constituted an embarrassment.

Such attitudes have begun to change and recent years have seen an ever-growing degree of openness. Later this month, the Chinese navy plans to host ships from the United States and a handful of other nations in an international fleet review to mark its 60th anniversary.

With most of China’s perceived threats to its sovereignty emanating from the ocean, the navy has been a particular beneficiary of modernization, adding advanced Yuan class diesel electric submarines alongside Russian imports such as the Sovremenny frigates and Kilo class subs. Chinese officers have stated that the addition of one or more aircraft carriers is simply a matter of time, although its not known if work has begun on one yet.

China imports large amounts of oil for its booming economy, and is worried about keeping sea lanes open. It also has disputes with several countries over islands, many in the South China Sea.

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