At the Africa Aerospace and Defence expo in September, weapons buyers from across the continent descended on Air Force Base Waterkloof in the South African capital of Pretoria for a bit of shopping. There they were wooed by Chinese defense gear giant Norinco, which has honed its pitch to an art.
Namibia Deputy Defense Minister Petrus Iilonga, wearing Prada sunglasses and a Lenin pin, studied models of battle tanks before representatives from Norinco, a state-controlled conglomerate also known as China North Industries Group, ushered him into a room marked VIP for some personal salesmanship. Nearby, the Tanzanian military chief, General Davis Mwamunyange, furrowed his brow while a company official in a charcoal suit and orange tie described a truck with a radar device mounted on the back. “Just about a month ago, we did a live test on this one,” the Chinese official confided.
Norinco has even devised a novel way to make buying weapons easier: It bundles together starter kits of basic defense gear—everything from rifles to howitzers, laser-guided bombs, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and drones—for governments that want to quickly outfit their armed forces. Chinese state media has dubbed the package a “military set meal.”
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More than three decades after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party founded Norinco, in the wake of a humiliating border war with Vietnam that ended in a stalemate, the company sits atop a military-industrial complex that increasingly rivals the U.S. war machine in firepower and influence.