After the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, relations between China and the Soviet Union gradually worsened, leading to border clashes in 1969. By 1970s, over 1.5 million troops from both sides were stationed along the Sino-Soviet border. At the time, the best Chinese tanks were copies of Soviet T-54/55 MBTs, hopelessly out-matched by new Soviet designs like the T-62, T-64, and T-72.
The People's Liberation Army requested new tanks that could match the Soviets, which led to the development of Type 69 by 617 Factory (now Inner-Mongolia First Machinery Group Company, However the T-69 failed to satisfy PLA requirements, and was more of an export success (over 2,000 sold) than domestic use. As a result, new tank development was commenced and a new family of tanks that included many sub-families was the result.
- Type 80 - the first Chinese second generation tank design. Prototype based on Type 79 hull, with following improvements:
- New chassis incorporating a wheel/track system with 6 small wheels, 3 track rollers, and rubber track skirt
- First Chinese tank to have an all welded turret, increasing protection level
- 730 hp 1215OL-7BW diesel engine licensed from Germany
- Type 37A dual-axis stabilised light spot fire control system (FCS) with external laser rangefinder, licensed from UK
- Type 83 105 mm rifled gun, NATO-standard, licensed from Austria
- Type 80-II - Type 80 with following improvements:
- Laser range-finder integrated with FCS
- Built-in test system to identify malfunctions
- Lens protection system for sights
- NBC protection with overpressure system
- Turret surrounded by storage racks for extra protection
- First Chinese tank to feature a collective NBC protection system so that crew need not to wear individual NBC protection gear inside the tank.
It is unclear if the different factories were in competition, or jointly developing the new second generation tank. What is known is that China's North Industries Group Corporation (Norinco), most likely in association with 201 Institute, unveiled their own version, the T-85 MBT in 1988. The PLA did not initially accept the T-85 MBT, and it was further developed for export to Pakistan (Type 85-IIAP and Type 85-III.) This was drastically changed later on when China obtained Soviet T-72 samples in late 1980s (reportedly from Iran with captured Iraqi samples.) South Africa had discovered along with the Chinese that not only could the western origin 105 mm guns of Type 80 defeat the armor of a T-72 tank but that the main gun of T-72 could also easily defeat the armor of not only the Type 80 but all armor of Chinese tanks as well. Improvement of the current tanks in PLA inventory was needed and this was later further illustrated during the 1991 Gulf War, when the PLA observed that their current (1991-era) tanks were vastly inferior to Western MBTs. Priorities were given to develop a third-generation tank, and as well as improving the existing second-generation design. As a result, Type 85 is a direct development of Type 80, and over 600 are in Chinese service, while an additional 300+ are in Pakistani service.
- Type 85 - Prototype with Type 80 chassis, welded turret, and 105 mm rifled main gun (Type 83?). Since the project was intended to be an export model and the Chinese government did not fund the project originally, this prototype was reportedly borrowed from a museum and when tests were completed, the vehicle was returned to the museum without the main gun, and a photo of this vehicle was circulated on the internet in the early 2000s.
- Type 85-I - Improved Type 85 with thermal sleeve for main gun. The turret incorporated composite armour.
- Type 85-II - Improved Type 85-I with upgraded fire-control system. The fire control system incorporates the laser rangefinder, the onboard computer, and the wind sensor. The automatic loader is reportedly derived from that of T-72 obtained from Middle East (Possibly from Iraq or captured Iraqi samples from Iran). Various solid-state electronics upgrades.
- Type 85-IIA - Type 85-II with a domestic 125 mm smoothbore gun replacing the original 105 mm rifled gun. The auto-loader for 125 mm rounds was based on the Soviet 2A46 design.
- Type 85-IIM - Introduced in mid 1990s with the following upgrades:
- Enhanced armour protection
- Image Stabilized Fire Control System (ISFCS) with night vision.
Also served as a prototype for the Type 88C.
- Type 85-IIAP - Modified Type 85-IIA variant built under license in Pakistan by Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT), modifications including a 125 mm smoothbore gun with associated auto-loader. Over 300 in service with the Pakistan Army, all were later upgraded to Type 85-III standard and some are installed with Weston Simfire 2 training equipment.
- Type 85-III - An export version intended for Pakistan with 1,000 hp diesel engine and 125 mm smoothbore gun. Rejected by the Pakistan Army after engine failures occurred during demonstrations in the Pakistani desert. The engine problems were later solved and Norinco incorporated additional features in 1995 such as ERA upgrades, but Type 85-III could not compete with more modern designs and did not enter mass production. Earlier Type 85 tanks have been upgraded to Type 85-III standard, including all Type 85-IIAP in Pakistani service.
In the late 1970s, China's 617 Factory (main contractor), 616 Factory, 477 Factory, and 201 Institute (now China North Vehicle Research Institute) were ordered to develop China's new second-generation tank. The project benefitted from imported Western Technologies in the 1980s. The first Type 80 MBT was based on the older Type 79 MBT hull, but equipped with new Chinese-made wheels/tracks, German-designed 730 hp diesel engine, British-designed dual-axis stabilized fire-control with laser range-finder, and NATO-standard 105 mm gun licensed from Austria. The improved version of this tank later entered service in 1988 under the PLA designation of Type 88. The Type 88 tank is unique in that unlike the rest series of Chinese tanks, this series actually includes versions from different families of earlier tanks. Production of Type 88-series MBTs was stopped in 1995. About 400 to 500 Type 88-series tanks are in service with the PLA today.
- Type 88 - First Chinese tank to have explosive reactive armor and was accepted into PLA service in 1988, based on Type 80-II design. Front storage racks on turret removed to fit explosive reactive armor (ERA) plates.
- Type 88A - Introduced after Type 88B, the main gun was replaced by improved 105 mm Type 83-I with longer tube and better performance. Fitted with FY-series double ERA plates for better protection against APFSDS and HEAT-FRAG rounds.
- Type 88B - Improved Type 88 with new auto-loading system for domestic 105 mm ammunition. FCS system was later replaced by new ISFCS-212 ISFCS. Comparing 88A, telescope close to main gun mount is removed from 88B. 88B has 8 Smoke Grenade Launchers, while 88A has 12.
- Type 88C - Developed from Type 85-IIM which had a more powerful 125 mm smoothbore gun, and the ISFCS-212 fire control system of this tank was later retrofited on Type 88A and Type 88B. The engine was originally the same as Type 80 and earlier Type 85, but once the problem of 1000 hp engine solved, it replaced the original engine.