The China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, better known as ‘Airshow China,’ used to see Russian arms dealers descend on the event to peddle their wares to potential Chinese customers. Held every other year in the city of Zhuhai, the Russians were eager to persuade potential Chinese customers to part with their cash.
But last month, few Russian sellers showed up. Their absence is part of a broader trend in defence ties between the two nations, a trend that has seen a dip in the volume of Russian sales of military equipment and technologies to China.
Up until a few years ago, Beijing was buying large quantities of Moscow’s surplus Soviet-era military products, including expensive tanks, warships and warplanes. But over the last few years, the Chinese have declined to sign contracts for any major weapons systems from Russia, while the dwindling number of major weapons systems China now receives are items that Beijing purchased years ago.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
All this leaves China buying mostly select subsystems or replacement items for larger platforms it has already acquired from Russia. For example, during a November 9 meeting in Beijing of the Russian-Chinese intergovernmental commission on military cooperation, the head of China's Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong, and Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov signed contracts to provide China with ‘spare parts for air defence systems, aviation and navy equipment.’
So why the change? Essentially, China no longer needs Soviet-era systems as the Chinese defence industry can now manufacture Soviet-era military technologies when it needs to (and in many cases can exceed this level). Beijing now wants to purchase more sophisticated armaments, often the latest-generation Russian systems.
The problem for China is that Moscow’s policymakers are reluctant to sell for fear that the Chinese will simply copy its technology and incorporate these advances into indigenous systems, some of which Chinese arms dealers can then offer to export to other countries in direct competition with Russian offerings.
China certainly appears to have form in this department. Russian and international sources agree that Chinese engineers and technicians copied one of Russia’s most famous and lucrative military export items, the Sukhoi-27 fighter jet. Looking to acquire advanced military technology from new sources following the imposition of the Western arms embargo in 1989, the Chinese government spent $1 billion in 1992 on acquiring two dozen turn-key Su-27s from a Russian military-industrial complex that had gone broke following the collapse of the Soviet military-industrial complex. After trying out the plane, the Chinese decided to buy 200 more, but they wanted to build them in China.