Putin Approves Sale of S-400 to China

The advanced air and missile defense system will strengthen China vis-à-vis Taiwan, Japan and India.

Putin Approves Sale of S-400 to China
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Putin has approved in principle the sale of Russia’s most advanced air and missile defense system to China, Russian media outlets have reported.

According to a report on the Russian business channel RBK TV, which was reproduced by BBC Monitoring, Russian President Putin has approved the sale of between two and four S-400 air and missile defense systems to China. Such a deal has long been under negotiation, and if approved would make China the first foreign customer of the advanced defense system. Already, China deploys a number of the Soviet-era S-300 defense system.

Despite the ongoing talks, some had felt that Russia would ultimately refuse to sell China the S-400 surface-to-air missile system for a number of reasons. First, there were reports that Russia planned to withhold all foreign sales of the S-400 until Moscow’s own military needs had been satisfied, sometime later this decade. More importantly, there were widespread concerns in Russian military circles that China would purchase a few of the systems with the intent of stealing the technology and reverse engineering a domestic version. This has been a common problem with military systems Russia has sold to China in the past.

Russia and China have sought to overcome this problem by signing stronger intellectual property protection (IPP) agreements. One IPP agreement was signed in 2008, but Russian officials later dismissed it as being insufficient. Russia and China also reportedly signed a stronger IPP agreement in 2012, although few details about this deal have been released.

With regards to the S-400, Jane’s reports that Russia and China hope to overcome the issue of reverse-engineering using a combination of stronger IPP agreements as well as larger volumes of sales. If China purchases a larger quantity of S-400 missile systems up front, Russia’s arms industry will suffer less if Beijing turns around and reverse-engineers the system.

The S-400 itself is likely to significantly enhance Chinese military power in a number of different contingencies. No country will be more affected by China’s S-400 missile systems, which—with a range of 400 kilometers—experts suggest will allow Beijing to achieve air dominance over the Taiwanese strait. York Chen, a former member of Taiwan’s National Security Council, told Defense News last year: “When S-400s work together with Chinese land- and sea-based fighters, the Chinese will have more confidence in sustaining airspace dominance over the Taiwan theater, thus depriving any organized resistance by the Taiwan Air Force and deterring the American intervention.”

While Taiwan is likely to be the most affected by China’s deployment of S-400s, it will not be alone in having to deal with this new capability. Japan also will have to contend with China’s S-400, which are expected to cover the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The impact the S-400 system will have on Japan’s ability to project power against China will be mitigated somewhat by Tokyo’s procurement of F-35 fighter jet. The joint strike fighters are built with enough stealth to operate in environments with advanced air defense systems.

India will also be impacted by the S-400. Because the system can defend against ballistic missiles, China’s deployment of the S-400 could jeopardize India’s strategic deterrent, which currently relies heavily on land-based missiles. This is likely one of the reasons that India’s next government is expected to reassess India’s no-first use nuclear doctrine. Should China launch a first strike on India’s nuclear arsenal that was able to wipe out most of its strategic forces, it could use missile defense systems like the S-400 to potentially defend against the remaining missiles.