From arms buyer to hi-tech partner – China’s changing military weapons ties with Russia

Beijing used to be Moscow’s biggest defence customer but the two countries are shifting towards more joint development projects

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 12:53am

China has become less of an arms client and more of a cutting-edge defence technology partner with Russia since it started developing more of its own weapons, military observers have said.

For many years, China was Russia’s biggest military client, relying on Moscow for advanced weapons and adapting some of the technology for its own systems.

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But India overtook China as the biggest buyer of Russian weapons in 2005 and today the Chinese military is third on the list, also behind Egypt.

However, Russian engines still power Chinese military aircraft such as Y-20 transport planes and H-6K bombers. And in November 2015, China became the first overseas client to buy Russia’s most advanced fighter jet when it signed a US$2.5 billion contract for 24 Su-35s.

The deal was first proposed by Moscow in 2010 but took years to iron out because Beijing wanted extra engines to use for parts in its J-20 stealth fighter jet.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said China still needed Russia’s help to modernise its armed forces.

“China bought 24 Su-35s because the People’s Liberation Army needs long-range fighter jets to deploy in the South China Sea,” Zhou said.

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“It imported Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system for the same reason – the PLA’s Rocket Force wants to replace all of its Hongqi defence systems.”

Zhou said the Su-35s and S-400 would save China time in its production of large-scale weapon systems, allowing it to focus on developing more of its own cutting-edge arms.

“China has more money now, of course, and the weapon deals will also help build good relations with Russia,” he said.

At the same time, China’s share of international arms sales has grown. A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that China accounted for 5.7 per cent of the world’s arms exports between 2013-17 – up by more than a third from the 4.6 per cent recorded between 2008-12.

Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert, said Russian weapons had become less attractive to China, but that the two countries would still work together on developing military technology.

“Sino-Russia bilateral ties have changed from big weapon drives to technological cooperation projects, including a floating nuclear power plant and big aircraft,” Song said.

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That partnership was strengthened after US President Donald Trump listed both China and Russia as American military rivals earlier this year, Shanghai-based satellite expert He Qisong said, adding that the partnership was growing on various fronts.

“Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are keen to use the two countries’ joint military exercises and cooperation on hi-tech research and development to signal that they are implementing such a partnership,” He said.

“For example, China’s BeiDou navigation system could be integrated with Russia’s Glonass global navigation satellite system, which will challenge the dominance of the US’ Global Positioning System.”

Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers and Military Expenditure Programme, said Russia might end up importing Chinese high technology for their weapon systems down the track.

“With both realising that to develop the full range of modern weaponry is an enormous effort and cost – even the US has problems with that, and it is spending more than Russia and China,” Wezeman said.

“China and Russia may think ‘We have to partner to share the cost and share the technology,’ so you get Chinese-Russian products.”

“I say that China will be becoming the more senior [partner] because they just have more money to spend on the development.”

But he said it was far more likely Beijing would chose to develop weapons systems alone because it has yet to build sufficient trust with Moscow for major partnership.

Additional reporting by Keegan Elmer