Amidst all the fanfare surrounding China’s increasingly impressive roster of homemade aircraft, Beijing has doggedly maintained its pursuit of Russia’s best military plane, the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet. Reports this week suggest that this persistence may finally have paid off, and that a deal with the Russians is now close to being sealed.
The deal’s revival reveals much about the motivations of Beijing and Moscow. Both sides had good reason to give up on the whole idea after the agreement first ran into trouble earlier this year. Landing indigenously developed J-15s on an aircraft carrier, or testing new stealth fighters – these are kind of the boosterish headlines that China’s leadership enjoys, as they feed into the narrative of China as an up-and-coming power with the capability to leap technological hurdles. Buying off-the-shelf planes from Russia does the exact opposite: It is an admission that China still has limitations, and that is still a playing catch-up.
As for the Russians, the thought of their prize fighter jet being stripped down, copied and mass-produced with nothing more than a thin coat of Chinese paint looked like it would be too much for Moscow to stomach, as it refused to sell Beijing small numbers of the aircraft.
Ultimately, however, self-interest seems to prevailed on both sides, with China supposedly agreeing to acquire 24 Su-35s – not as many as the Russians wanted, but just about enough to make the sale worthwhile.
China clearly needs the Su-35, perhaps for its military capabilities, perhaps for its technology, and probably for both. Moscow may fret that after buying one batch of 24 aircraft China will not come back for more. But for the Chinese the hard part – the act of buying from a foreign supplier – is now over. So a follow-on order is possible, especially if the PLA has argued for the Sukhoi because it needs the aircraft for military reasons. Certainly, as tensions simmer in the East Sea and the South China Sea, arguments for buying the Su-35 as a frontline fighter become increasingly compelling. China’s current aircraft are almost certainly overmatched by Japanese F-15s, for example.
Russia, for its part, needs China’s business, since many of its once-stalwart customers are no longer reliable markets. China is close to achieving self-reliance in defense production: The Su-35 sale could be Moscow’s last hurrah in that particular marketplace. India, once heavily dependent on Russian kit, is diversifying its supply base. Vietnam’s economic situation is precarious, and Hanoi could struggle to pay for the Russian systems it has already ordered, let alone acquire more. All bets are off as far as Syria is concerned. And future orders from Venezuela could depend on Hugo Chavez’s parlous state of health.
So Moscow will hold its nose as it sells its best fighter aircraft to the Chinese. And the sale could produce more than just Beijing’s cash. Perhaps by handing China the highly capable Su-35, Russia is hoping to create demand for its fighter aircraft elsewhere in the region.