Richard Weitz wrote last week that China might seek to purchase the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter if its own J-11B fighter (which, as he notes, bears an uncanny resemblance in many ways to the Su-27) isn’t able to fulfill its planned roles. One of these roles would be to match the widely exported US F-16 Fighting Falcon—a relatively low-cost but effective multirole jet that has been sold to numerous US allies (although not to Taiwan, which I’ll come back to in a minute).
One of the concerns Russia has had with selling fighters to China is that the Chinese have a track record of buying aircraft (and indeed other technology—just ask Yamaha about its motorcycles), copying it and then not wanting more. Indeed, Weitz noted wryly how a proposed sale of the Su-33 was put on ice after the Chinese asked to buy only two of the Su-33 planes for a ‘trial.’
The Russians are in something of a bind—do they risk missing out on sales to a potentially major, rapidly growing customer or risk that customer reverse engineering their technology and selling a not-quite-as-good alternative for significantly less money?
It’s unclear which way the Russians will bend on this, but there were reports last month that Russian government export agency Rosoboronexport was planning on selling the 4+ generation Su-35 to the Chinese.
I asked The Diplomat defence contributor David Axe how much of a departure this would be for the Russians and what he felt the implications of such a sale would be. He told me that if the decision to sell has been made, it really would mark an important shift by Russia.
He agreed with Weitz and others that the J-11 is effectively a copy of the Su-27, adding, though, that the Chinese copies have tended to be lower quality than the plane they're modelled on.
But Axe said that although it’s clear any Russian decision to sell would mean something, what that something actually is isn’t clear.
‘It could mean the Russians are simply desperate for export sales and willing to risk anything,’ he told me. ‘It could also reflect Russia's interest in heading off China's increasing ability to manufacture its own jets entirely on its own. If the latter, the implication could be that Russia senses China is at an inflection point, where China's need for jets is acute at the same time that China is increasingly capable of making its own quality aircraft, but not so capable that it can entirely forgo export offers.
‘It could be that Russia sees China as now capable of both designing and manufacturing its own aircraft entirely without help, rendering reverse-engineering moot. If that were the case, then Russia has little to lose in selling fighters to China, and everything to gain by restoring a stake in the Chinese market before Chinese firms gain a total monopoly.’
And he added: ‘More broadly, the sale offer might also reflect warming relations between the two governments.’
So where does Taiwan fit into this? Taiwan currently flies the F-16A/B, but as a report by the US-Taiwan Business Council noted earlier this year, the island is facing a significant decline in its air defence capabilities. If it is to have any chance of competing with a Su-35-equipped China, then Taiwan at the very least needs the latest model F-16 C/D.
Unfortunately, the United States has so far refused the Taiwanese request, or at least refused to make a decision. But having cancelled further production of the F-22 Raptor—a fifth-generation stealth fighter that would outclass the Su-35—and with its refusal to sell even close ally Japan the aircraft, the US risks unnecessarily allowing China an edge over its Asia interests.
A crucial consideration in the refusal to sell the newer F-16 will be the Obama administration’s reluctance to further aggravate China, especially after its last arms sale to Taiwan resulted in an extended break in military contacts. But if the US is seeking to maintain the status quo with Taiwan, then it should approve the sale and allow Taiwan to at least keep up.
There is, of course, a risk to such a sale, namely that it will encourage China to escalate its military build-up still further. Indeed, The Telegraph reported yesterday that China has just warned that it will have ‘no choice but to respond’ to Japan’s announcement last week that it will buy Patriot PAC3 interceptors to try to help protect against potential North Korean attacks.
But if it’s worried about an escalation on Taiwan’s part, China should probably start by re-thinking the almost 2000 missiles pointed right at Taiwan.