A senior executive at Russia’s state arms export company, Rosoboronexport, has said that Russia will sign a contract to sell the advanced Su-35 jet to China in 2014, while confirming that the deal is not on track to be finished in 2013. This is unlikely to be the last word on the matter – the negotiations have dragged on since 2010, and have been the subject of premature and contradictory announcements before – but it is a strong indication that Russia remains interested in the sale. For the time being, China’s interest in the new-generation fighter is worth examining for what it reveals about the progress of homegrown military technology and China’s strategy for managing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. If successful, the acquisition could have an immediate impact on these disputes. In addition to strengthening China’s hand in a hypothetical conflict, the Su-35’s range and fuel capacity would allow the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) to undertake extended patrols of the disputed areas, following the model it has used to pressure Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.
The Su-35 is not the first Sukoi to pique the interest of the Chinese military. As previously reported in The Diplomat, the Sukoi-30MKK, and the Chinese version, the J-16, have been touted by the Chinese military as allowing it to project power into the South China Sea.
Previous reports in Chinese and Russian media in June of this year pointed toward a deal having been reached over a sale of Su-35 multi-role jets, but were not viewed as official, given more than a year’s worth of contradictory reports in Chinese and Russian media. At one point, Russian sources claimed that the sale had gone through, only to be categorically refuted by the Chinese Ministry of Defense. Nevertheless, in January both governments paved the way for an eventual sale by signing an agreement in principle that Russia would provide the Su-35 to China.
A big question remaining is the number of aircraft that China will purchase. China’s Global Times reported this summer that a group of Chinese representatives were in Moscow evaluating the Su-35, and would begin acquiring a “considerable number” of the advanced jets. Whether that means that China will purchase more than 48, as mentioned in press statements a year ago, is unclear. Evidence of continued negotiation for the jets indicates a strong desire within the Chinese military to acquire the Sukhoi fighters.
Chinese aviation is still reliant in many ways on Russia. Media attention has focused on China’s domestic development programs, including stealth fighter-bombers and helicopters. The advance of Chinese aviation capabilities is by now a common theme, with every month seeming to bring new revelations about its programs. While the ability to manufacture and perform design work on these projects represents significant progress, “under the hood” these aircraft often feature Russian engines. China continues to try to copy or steal Russian engine technology because of a strong preference for building systems itself. In fact, purchasing the Su-35 does not reflect a shift in the preferences of the Chinese military leadership. Buying the Su-35 reflects the delicate position China now finds itself in, as both a large purchaser and producer of primarily Russian-style weapons. Though self-reliance has always been important to China, it has been superseded by the strategic need to acquire cutting-edge weapons systems quickly. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), beginning in 1991, China began purchasing the Su-27 long-range fighter jet (an older relative of the Su-35). The data is searchable here.
Russia understandably became upset when its star export appeared as an indigenously produced J-11 in China – without a licensing agreement. Russian media was previously reporting that Russia had chosen not to sell the jet over fears that it would be copied in turn and become yet another export item for China, further undercutting Russia’s own economically vital arms business. It appears that now Russia is trying to balance its fear of being undercut by Chinese copying with its desire (or need) to sell weapons.
Viewing the purchase of the Su-35 through the lens of China’s strategic needs and events, like the recent territorial spats with its neighbors, provides a useful perspective on just why China is so eager to acquire the Sukhoi jet.
Simply put, the Su-35 is the best non-stealth fighter in the world today. Though stealth has come to dominate Western aircraft design, in terms of China’s needs, other factors take precedence. Even more surprisingly, superiority in air-to-air combat is not the Su-35’s key selling point. while the Su-35 gives the Chinese military a leg up versus the F-15s and other aircraft fielded by neighbors like Japan, the advanced Russian jet does not add significant new capabilities to conflict areas like the Taiwan Strait. Large numbers of interceptors and multi-role jets like the J-10 could easily be deployed over the Strait, or to areas near Japan like the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The advantage of the Su-35 rather lies in its speed and ample fuel tanks. Like the Su-27, the Su-35 was created to patrol Russia’s enormous airspace and to be able to meet incoming threats far away from Russia’s main urban areas. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) faces similar problems.
The South China Sea is just such a problem. A vast area of 1.4 million square miles (2.25 million square kilometers), China’s claims, as demarcated by the famous “nine-dashed line,” pose challenges for the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) current fighters. Currently, land-based PLANAF fighters, can conduct limited patrols of the sea’s southern areas, but their fuel capacity severely restricts the time they can spend on patrol. Enforcing claims far from the mainland in times of crisis requires the type of range and speed that the Su-35 possesses. The Su-35 is likely meant to help enforce China’s territorial claims, further deter regional claimants, and provide additional layers of protection in the case of escalation. The key to this is fuel.