Yesterday various news outlets reported Russia and China had seemingly concluded a large defense deal with important implications for the Asia-Pacific. If accurate, the deal will be the largest purchases by China of Russian military equipment in recent memory – and some of the most technologically advanced. Such a deal has been rumored for several months.
As CCTV explains:
“According to the contract, the two countries will jointly produce four Lada Class air-independent propulsion submarines which will then be sold to China. China will also buy 24 Su-35 jet fighters from Russia. Experts say that the Su-35 will reduce the pressure on China’s air-defense before China’s stealth fighter is put into use.
This is the first time China has bought important military equipment from Russia in ten years. The Defense Ministries of both countries have said that military cooperation between the two countries is of great significance in maintaining regional stability.”
Such a deal would be a major boon for China, giving the PLA access to advanced fighter jet engines as well as possible advanced Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology for potential future use in domestic submarine designs. Beyond gaining access to advanced technology for later use, such weapons could be of deterrent value in ongoing disputes with neighbors in the East and South China Seas.
However, according to Defense News—as well as Russian media outlets—the deal may have never taken in the first place. The Defense News report cites Vasiliy Kashin, a military specialist from the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, as saying that “The Kremlin is officially denying even discussing arms trade during Xi’s visit.” Defense News later quotes the same source as saying that, “In Russia-China relations, specific arms trade contracts are almost never discussed by the top leaders, just the general approaches.”
The report goes on to note that another Russian source explained there was “strong reservations about going forward on the memorandum of understanding signed in December to explore the sale of the twin-engine Su-35s and Amur submarines to China.”
Such hesitation coming Russia would be completely understandable. Russia has in the past sold advanced SU-27 fighter jets to China – only to see such jets reverse engineered and produced en masse as the J-11 fighter. Also, the J-15 fighter that China is currently being tested on the PLAN’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is rumored to have been crafted from a SU-33 prototype.
Russia must also consider the long term ramifications of such a deal. While Russia and China have cordial relations at the moment, selling some of your most advanced military equipment to a possible future geostrategic competitor is always a risky proposition.
Given China’s history Moscow is likely concerned that such technology could be reproduced and resold at lower prices, undercutting Russia’s own position in the arms export business. This is especially to be on Moscow’s mind given recent reports that China’s position in the global arms business has been steadily rising.
While Russia may gain a lucrative arms sale in the short term, the long term ramifications must weigh heavily in Moscow’s strategic calculus. Could China have floated the idea of an agreement to put pressure on Russia? It’s possible. Or maybe Moscow just got cold feet.
Harry Kazianis serves as editor for The Diplomat.