It was a poignant moment of stiff diplomatic protocol and good old-fashioned elbow-rubbing. The People's Liberation Army's Air Force commander, Lieutenant-General Liu Shunyao, raised his glass and toasted the warm relations between the mainland's air force and its overseas friends. The occasion was a dinner hosted by the PLA Air Force to honour foreign air-force pilots and other official brass at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, which concluded in Zhuhai at the weekend. The air show, Gen Liu said, was an opportunity for air-force leaders to exchange ideas and speak to manufacturers. His words - and the guest list - emphasised that the aviation exhibition was as much an occasion for mainland munitions-manufacturers to display their latest creations as it was for foreign firms, such as Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier Aerospace, to hype their designs. Air commanders from Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates - all leading importers of mainland-made aircraft and other weapons systems - were present. Also present were Russian air-force personnel, representing the mainland's chief source of military hardware and technology. Military imports continue to outpace exports but the mainland is slowly emerging as a leading international arms distributor. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the mainland exported US$3.53 billion worth of conventional weapons between 1993 and last year. However modest by standards of the United States, Britain and France, the mainland is finding receptive markets in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia for its low-priced aircraft and missiles. China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp (Catic) deputy director for aircraft marketing and development Zhu Chuanxi said mainland aircraft and aviation products were not as technologically advanced as those made in the United States or Europe. The mainland's pricing and military assistance programmes allowed Catic, Beijing's official trading company for aviation goods, to make inroads in cash-poor, militarily ambitious developing nations, however. Catic exported aviation and non-aviation products valued at nearly US$7 billion between 1980 and last year, the company said. Key clients included Egypt and Pakistan, which have been buyers of F-7M jet fighters, fashioned after a Russian-made Mig-21. China National Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp (CPMIEC) general arms trading manager Luo Ziying said the mainland was finding overseas success with cut-priced ship-to-ship and laser-guided missiles. CPMIEC's most sought-after products included the shoulder-fired QW-1 laser-guided ground-to-air missile, which sells at $40,000 to $50,000, a discount to its US and Russian counterparts. Also stirring interest has been the more costly C801 ship-fired anti-ship missile, favoured by Iran's navy. The mainland was bidding to diversify its aerospace enterprises by entering into more licensing arrangements with leading international manufacturers to produce civilian aircraft and non-military products.