Chinese advances and Russian suspicion have led to a shift in the arms sales balance, says Richard Weitz. But for how long?
Last week, Russia delivered 15 additional batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to China, making good on an about 2 billion dollar deal signed in the mid-2000s. Yet despite the publicity surrounding the sale, the Russian-Chinese arms transfer relationship is in trouble.
Recent years have seen a precipitous fall in Chinese purchases of Russian military equipment and technologies. Whereas until a few years ago Beijing was buying large quantities of Moscow’s surplus Soviet-era military products, during the past few years the Chinese have declined to purchase any major weapons systems from Russia.
China has already acquired about a dozen S-300 batteries from Russia under contracts signed in previous years. But the S-300 is a Soviet-era air defence system, with each battery consisting of four truck-mounted launchers each holding four missile tubes. And, although the late-model versions of the S-300 (dubbed ‘The Favourite’ by Russians) delivered a few days ago are highly capable, the Russian military is phasing out the system’s use. Russian units are replacing it with the more effective S-400 (code-named ‘Triumph’ by NATO), which has additional capabilities against stealthy targets as well as some ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Russia’s defence industry is now developing an even more advanced surface-to-air missile system, the S-500, which is potentially capable of intercepting targets in outer space flying at hypersonic speeds of five kilometres a second.
Last week’s shipment underscores two key features of the current Russia-China arms transfer relationship. First, Russia is presently sending China only weapons systems based on Soviet-era technology, most of which were manufactured during the Soviet era. Second, China purchased these items several years ago. In recent years, in contrast, China has largely stopped buying complete weapons systems from Russia, primarily because the Chinese defence industry can now match Soviet-era technologies, while Russia refuses to sell China its most advanced weapons.
This change has transformed the shape of Sino-Russian commerce. Whereas before 2007 Russia racked up steady trade surpluses, during the past three years the terms of trade have abruptly shifted in China’s favour. Today, China overwhelmingly buys commodities, especially natural resources like oil and timber, from Russia. Many of these items have fallen sharply in value due to declining world prices. In contrast, Russians have been purchasing a growing volume of Chinese electronics, automobiles, consumer appliances and machinery.
In the past, Moscow could count on Beijing buying numerous high-tech weapons systems from Russia’s military industrial complex. And following the decision by Western governments to impose an arms embargo on China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident—a ban that remains largely in force today—China emerged as one of the most reliable clients of Russian defence items.
Photo Credit: Alex / FlickrView as Single Page