It started some 30 years ago with fake Levi's jeans and Versace bags. Then the market became more sophisticated, with faux iPhones on the racks. Now, the Chinese counterfeit goods trade has gone even further, with the production of identical copies of Russian-designed fighter planes.
In 1996, the Chinese government acquired a license to manufacture 200 Su-27 (Sukhoi 27) fighter jets at the Shenyang aircraft factory in northeast China. The planes were supposed to be used by the Chinese air force under the name J-11. But in 2004, after reeling 95 planes off the assembly line, the Chinese authorities suddenly cancelled the contract, listing various faults with the design of the jet. However, in 2007 China started to manufacture a new plane, of "Chinese design", which they named the J-11B. Not surprisingly, it was almost an identical copy of the Su-27, except for the addition of Chinese-produced engines, radars and dashboards.
The Chinese model is much cheaper than the Russian original, and Russia has been quick to note that China hopes to sell it to countries usually supplied by Moscow. The Russian authorities plan to sue for counterfeit theft, but, according to our Observer, Rick Fisher, who specializes in military issues, they have little chance of getting their voices heard.
Rick Fisher is a military aviation expert and senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Centre.
The J-11B is made to use several of the Su-27/ J-11's components along with the new Chinese-made parts. The Chinese air force values the Russian design, preferring it to their own Chengdu J-10. In 2003, a Russian source told me that he fully expects China to market their "indigenised" Sukhoi aircraft once they succeed in putting it into production.
Will it be competitive? In some respects, yes. My analysis is that it might be as effective as recent, modified Su-27s, the J-11B/Su-30 attacker series. But Russia is not standing still - and its new Su-35 features more powerful engines and an even better radar system. However, for the price, some countries may view the J-11B and J-11BS as a better deal.
It's hard to say where the J-11B currently is in its development cycle. Prototypes have been tested, and the WS-10A — a perhaps even more important accomplishment for China — is in final stages of design, or perhaps even initial production. But right now, the J-11B is not ready for the Chinese Air Force, much less ready for foreign sales. By 2010 or shortly thereafter, however, it could be ready for the Chinese market. And once it has proven itself in the Chinese service for several years, it will likely be on offer for foreign trade.
The original Russian-made Su-27 (Sukhoi 27).
China's version, the J-11.