Algeria and Egypt are the latest nations slated to receive China’s CH-5 and Wing Loong drones, sales that underline Beijing’s increasingly successful global marketing strategy after the US restricted its armed drone exports to even close allies beginning in 2020.
Algeria recently publicly confirmed its order of six CH-5 drones to be delivered in March this year, while US ally Egypt is in talks with China to receive more Wing Loong drones for its air force.
The CH-5 drone is analogous to the US MQ-9 Reaper, with roughly the same dimensions and ability to stay airborne while carrying six missiles for over 30 hours.
China’s Wing Loong is also a competitor to the US MQ-9, though it is intended primarily for reconnaissance and surveillance. In Egyptian service, the Wing Loong has already seen combat against ISIS in the Sinai region.
China’s comparatively cheap drones and often flexible payment options are especially appealing to nations with limited defense budgets, giving Beijing a cost-competitive foothold in global drone markets.
From a wider perspective, however, China’s drone, as well as other advanced weaponry, sales are driven as much by strategic and foreign policy considerations as economic gain. These sales can also be construed as signs of its growing political, technological, and military might to its partners and rivals.
China is believed to have three main interests behind its weapons sales. First, the sales are often enablers for deeper political and military access to client states, as high-tech weapons procurements are necessarily high-level government-to-government transactions.
In terms of drone sales, China may withhold certain technologies and know-how from its clients to make them dependent for technical support and maintenance. Chinese drones in foreign service are also likely able to secretly relay information to Chinese intelligence agencies.
As such, China can use its drones as an effective foreign policy tool towards client states that have strategic resources and locations critical to China’s interests, such as Myanmar, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
Myanmar and Pakistan are key nodes in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) geostrategic infrastructure-building project, while Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are oil-rich states that supply a significant percentage of China’s energy needs.
These Chinese client states have financial or political constraints which preclude them from buying US arms or instead are deliberately aiming to enhance their strategic independence by diversifying their weaponry suppliers.
Second, China’s hi-tech weapon exports can help to maintain a favorable military balance between client states and rivals.
China’s recent sales of J-10C fighter jets, Type 054 frigates and VT-4 main battle tanks to Pakistan reinforces the threat the latter poses to India. That, in turn, diverts India’s strategic attention, military assets and resources away from its border dispute with China in the Himalayas and back towards Pakistan, which New Delhi perceives as a more immediate threat.
Chinese drones and rocket artillery were instrumental in enabling the Ethiopian government to rout the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful armed US proxy in the war on terror in the strategic Horn of Africa region that serves as a gateway to the Red Sea.
If the TPLF successfully captured the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and seized political power, it would have most likely been pliant to US interests, serving as a further US counterbalance to China’s influence in neighboring Eritrea.
Third, China’s arms sales aim to position it as an alternative strategic partner to the US, highlighting the shortcomings of the latter while increasing the former’s growing international standing, influence and clout.
While the US has been the longstanding security guarantor of Saudi Arabia, its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and strategic pivot from the Middle East to the Pacific may have raised doubts in Riyadh about US military commitment to its and other Persian Gulf allies’ security.
Last year, China and Saudi Arabia were in talks about transferring the necessary equipment for the latter to manufacture its own ballistic missiles, signaling a shift away from US weaponry dependence.