Why Would Russia Sell China Su-35 Fighter Jets?
Image Credit: World Economic Forum
Why Would Russia Sell China Su-35 Fighter Jets?

Why Would Russia Sell China Su-35 Fighter Jets?


Truthfully, the state of Russia-China ties gives me a headache.

First, I understand the rationale for both sides to develop large agreements for natural resource sales—it’s clearly in both of their national interests. China needs them (having a majority of the imported resource that powers your economy, namely oil, go through narrow straits that could be blockaded is probably not a good plan), Russia wants to sell them (what else does Russia have to sell these days). However, military sales of Moscow’s best equipment, even as a report from the Want China Times suggests is still being negotiated makes little sense, well…at least for Russia that is.

As I have stated on several occasions, Russia has a number of reasons to hold off selling even one of its most capable jets to China. Readers of Flashpoints are familiar with the tale of Russia’s last large jet sale to China, the SU-27. When Russia’s defense industry was on its back in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, China purchased US$1 billion worth of the then-advanced fighter. Plans were laid for an expansion of the agreement for up to 200 jets to be sold, with large quantities to be assembled in China.  The deal then fell apart after the first 100 or so jets were delivered when Moscow accused Beijing of essentially replicating the jet and prepping it for resale under the renamed J-11 and J-11B. China has allegedly copied at least one other fighter jet of Russian origin, the SU-33, renamed the J-15.

For their part, Chinese officials denied such allegations. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010, Zhang Xinguo, deputy president of AVIC, tried to claim the jets were not a copy.

“You cannot say it’s just a copy,” Zhang declared. “Mobile phones all look similar. But technology is developing very quickly. Even if it looks the same, everything inside cannot be the same.”

In a piece for the People’s Daily, Chinese officials would also defend the J-15, the alleged copy of the SU-33.

Geng Yansheng, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, explained, “The world military affairs have an objective law of development. Many weapons have the same design principle and some command and protection methods are also similar. Therefore, it at least is non-professional to conclude that China copied the aircraft carrier technology of other countries only by simply comparison.”

The deal that is being considered now, at least according to the report mentioned above, sounds similar to the SU-27 sale.  According to WCT, “Beijing sought a promise from Moscow to set up a maintenance center in China as part of the contract” and that “Chinese experts must be able to maintain and repair Su-35 fighters with training provided by Russian advisers.”

Effectively, Russia would be giving up a tremendous amount of technical knowledge and knowhow to China with very little safeguards to stop a repeat of the SU-27 incident. While Russia would gain a large sale for its arms industry, thinking long-term – and recalling the fact that Russia-China relations historically have not exactly been a model of peace and prosperity – Moscow might want to think twice about such an agreement.

For China, there are a number of reasons such a deal would be attractive. China has documented issues producing fighter jet engines, and even the ability to take apart and dissect Russia’s latest military wares would be of use. And for all the talk of 5th generation fighters, America is the only nation so far to deploy such a craft, with various well-documented glitches along the way. A more traditional craft could be of great value to Beijing while it perfects a stealthier fighter for the future. Also, considering the long range of the SU-35, such a plane would be of great value to loiter over disputed territories in the East and South China Sea for extended periods of time. Indeed, if Beijing buys into all the talk about Air-Sea Battle (ASB) being all about deep strikes on the Chinese mainland, an advanced fighter jet to defend the homeland does not seem like a bad investment in the long term.

For Russia, the risks seem obvious. Competing against your own technology in the lucrative arms trade is never a good thing. While a deal today might be profitable, the loss of multiple future deals to cheaper Chinese copies could be a disaster tomorrow.  Also, today’s friendships could give way to tomorrow’s geostrategic challenges. Russia and China’s interests might not always align so closely. It would be a pity if Russia someday were forced to consider squaring off against military technology it sold to Beijing, either directly or against Chinese sales to some future adversary.

There is however one possibility that Russia could be banking on for China to behave this go around: it has the option of cutting off oil supplies if Beijing does not play nice. The question is, considering the fact that a large amount of Russia’s overall budget is backed by oil revenue, even if China decided to make the same choice and again play copycat, would Russia be in a position to make such a move?

February 16, 2014 at 01:25

I hope they fly better than the Russian Sochi team plays hockey!!!!!

December 5, 2013 at 09:22

Truthfully, the author’s compulsive urge to opine on a subject that he knows nothing about gives me a headache.

November 29, 2013 at 10:45

1) To make money. The U.S. makes a lot of money selling arms to its allies. Russia’s allies for the most part tend to have limited financial resources. Having the Chinese market would be a huge boon.
2) Why not? China can either purchase Russian technology, or it can be forced to create its own technology, which will foster its innovation ability and perhaps allow it to leapfrog existing Russian technology. We have also seen China copy existing technology quite readily. So Russia is giving China nothing but an advantage in time savings.
3) Control. By selling to China, Russia is bolstering its own manufacturing prowess while at the same time reducing the need for China to develop its own manufacturing facilities. This a) reduces China’s ability to ramp up manufacturing without Russia’s knowledge and assistance, making it less of a potential threat, and b) reduces China’s threat as a competitor of military exports.
4) Lastly, and possibly most importantly, the U.S. has given away its latest and greatest technologies to all its European allies, Japan, Australia, etc., in effect ‘surrounding’ Russia. Russia and China have had a wary relationship because Russia prefers one less global power next door. However, given that China is on the path to growth and becoming a superpower anyway, they may as well take advantage of it, and ally with China. In this sense, they see that the “strategic competitor” of your adversary is your business partner… Better to jump on the bandwagon since you can’t stop it, and have it help you move along than to further isolate yourself such that you have no friends whatsoever.

What could the U.S. have done to prevent this? For one, stop surrounding Russian and China with nukes and Patriot defines systems. Secondly, stop interfering in the Asia-Pacific area to “project” its power. Thirdly, stop attacking Russia (and China) perennially with human rights abuse claims and other childish provocations, as if it were the World police.

Let’s be realistic. The U.S. is like the neighbourhood strongman who is threatening to beat up the mothers of young men who might be a future competitor if they buy food for their kids, because they are afraid those kids might grow up big and strong, so they wish them to be malnourished. The reality is those kids will grow up one way or another, and you have either been a friend who guided them along the right path with encouragement, or a bully who they resent and hate because you beat up their moms.

November 23, 2013 at 14:00

Nobody even considered the Su-35 sales to China is just Russian’s way of sticking it into USA and Japan in the Far East with an older technology. Let the Chinese carry the burden until Russia can catch up economically.

November 22, 2013 at 03:08


The SU-35 uses the AL-41 turbofans as I recall, which is powerful enough for the Chinese to use in the J-20 & J-31 fighters. China’s problems with the copycat version of SU-27 AL-31 turbofans isn’t about advanced computerized production. The Chinese just can’t figure out the alloy composits of making a reliable heat bearing jet engine as yet. Because of this, Chinese copycat engine WS-10 of the SU-27 AL-31 turbofans tend to have blades that crack & break apart sucking debris into the engine. Chinese WS-10 also has shorter lifespans than original AL-31 turbofans because metal alloys in Chinese version reportedly break & can’t handle the high heat. Also Chinese WS-10 turbofans have ‘spooling’ issues with their copycat turbofans. It’s a lot more looming problem for the Chinese engineers than just advanced computerized production machinary. Plus the copycat WS-10 of the AL-31 is not powerful enough to allow the feature ‘super cruise’ ability of F-22, F-35, and the future PAK FA-50 joint venture stealth fighter by Indo-Russo design. That’s why China needs the SU-35…………….for her more powerful AL-41 turbofans and to steal her more advanced avionics package!

December 9, 2013 at 19:37

What a malicious piece of BS> On what basis you say all these crap? Where’s your evidence you piece of CIA turd?

peter walsh
November 21, 2013 at 17:15

The SU35 is not in the same league as the F22.
China is better off spending the monies, to hyper focus on fixing the bugs plaguing the production of her jet engines.
As I understand, th engines on limited production are ok but is trouble by the mass production run.
The monies are better spent refining the production process and techniques and on more advanced computerised production machinary.

Little Helmsman
November 21, 2013 at 04:48

Russia needs the export revenues because it can’t export anything else except natural resources.

November 21, 2013 at 03:02

The answer is simple,
1.) Russia needs the defense revenue as much as possible and bet on China will continue to buy its military hardware. Also, Russia wants to explore or increase trade with its neighbors and keeps its economy healthy. This is good trade policy.
2.) Russia is more close to China in foreign policies after the USSR collapsed. Contrary to most western analysts think, Russia is never US ally, only the naive US politicians think it is. Look at Edward Snowden’s case.
Russia is not communist country in name does not mean it allies with the west.
3.) Russia wants to keep China close to show to US that if US raise war with them or mess up around north-east Asia or try to team up with its puppet, Japan, to gang up on Russia (Russia has territorial dispute with Japan), China may fight on Russia’s side.

Russia had military joint exerices with China, going to have with India, or maybe in the future with even Japan. All these are just Russia want to have good relationship with all its neighbors, regardless of political difference.
The west wants to see Russia not to get along with China and try to isolate China. That is their dream. But, that will disappoint the west.

November 20, 2013 at 22:08

Russia needs the cash.

November 20, 2013 at 19:17

China buys most jet fighters from Russia is also a double blades knife as Russia can sell the secret technolgy of the jet to China’s adversaries when needed.
The author might not forget the Falkland war between UK and Argentina in which France has informed the secret technology of its Air-Sea Exocet missiles it has sold to Argentina before.
That has enabled UK navy to fend off most Exocet missiles that Argentina air forces fired on UK navy ships.

December 5, 2013 at 14:51

@Socrates. Margaret Thatcher blackmailed France to handover the codes to the British whereupon French Exocet missiles were blinded after firing.

The French were, and have always been, a treacherous lot.

November 20, 2013 at 19:09

China wants them for their engines. They have 5th Gen prototypes but cannot produce reliable, powerful engines themselves. Reverse engineering may be what they have in mind. Besides, they have the cash. Why not pick up SU35s while the 5th Gen are years from production.

November 20, 2013 at 19:09

It makes perfect sense. Russian authorities have no interest in governing or protecting its interests. They just want to exploit Russia’s resources for their own bank balances.

Martin Su
November 20, 2013 at 16:13

China is not interested in the Russian Su-35, which is a fourth-generation fighter. China is busy conducting flight tests on its own fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 stealth fighters.

From The Jamestown Foundation publication:

“Beijing Denies Russian Rumors of Su-35 Purchase
Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 6
March 15, 2012
By: Peter Mattis

China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has denied emphatically that such a deal is in the works, stating the press coverage is ‘not in accord with the facts’ and the Su-35 ‘does not fit China’s national situation’ (Caixun, March 12; Global Times, March 12).”

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