With the same low-cost strategy that worked for toys and electronics, Chinese firms are targeting cost-conscious customers, albeit in an industry still dominated by the United States, Russia, France and Britain.
"China's share of the global market may never be that big, but it will have a growing niche with poorer countries such as African states," said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The Chinese challenge has been on display at this week's Zhuhai air show, a biannual aviation industry event that wraps up Sunday.
Pilots have given aerial displays of China's latest-generation J-10 fighter, and exhibition halls are stocked with models and mock-ups from military aircraft maker Aviation Industry Corp. of China.
Sprinkled among the exhibits are a half dozen flight simulators, highlighting a push to offer not just aircraft but also training and after-sales service.
That all-encompassing approach will be key to further growth as Chinese firms seek to woo buyers for more sophisticated aircraft such as the J-10 and F-8T, which compete directly with products from the West.
"China is building a client base for the future," said Rob Hewson, London-based editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons, who was attending the air show. "They hope to be servicing these customers for decades to come."
That was not always the case. China's arms industry had long been known for cheap knockoffs of Russian hardware: East Timor's president once described the Chinese patrol boats his country was purchasing as a "fake Gucci ship."
These days, technological advances are driving expansion.
Deliveries of big-ticket military hardware more than doubled between 2007 and last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, lifting China to seventh place among arms exporters. The institute tally excludes sales of small arms and ammunition, of which China has long been a major supplier.
The FC-1 Xiaolong multirole fighter jet is an example of what's behind that growth.
Developed in cooperation with the Pakistani air force, which calls it the JF-17 Thunder, the plane is being offered at the relatively low price of about $15 million, making it a cost-efficient replacement for aging workhorses such as the MiG-21 and Northrop F-5 Tiger.
Other overseas successes include:
— The Hongdu K-8 trainer and ground-attack jet, also developed jointly with Pakistan. About 250 have been sold to countries such as Egypt, Ghana, Pakistan, Sudan and, most notably, Venezuela, beating out Russian competition for China's first major sale in South America.
— The F-7 jet fighter, based on the Russian MiG-21. About 100 have been sold to Bangladesh, Namibia, Nigeria and other developing countries. In Nigeria's case, the arrival of 12 of the planes in April did much to revive a fighter fleet that had become largely inoperable.
— The WZ-551 armored personnel carrier, sold to Argentina, Sudan and a half-dozen other countries.
The growing sales coincide with a sharp decline in China's weapons imports, although it remains dependent on Russia for key components, including engines for the JF-17, G-10 and L-15.
Deliveries of ships, submarines and fighter planes from Russia peaked in 2006 and then went into sharp decline.
One reason was Russian wariness of Chinese reverse engineering: Stung by China's flagrant copying of the Su-27 — the Chinese version is known as the J-11 — Russian makers became increasingly reluctant to sell their most advanced technology to Beijing.