The sanctions and arms embargo slapped on Russia by the West and followed by Ukraine have forced Moscow to turn to China to source components for its warplanes and missiles, even though the Kremlin is skeptical of the quality of these made-in-China alternatives.
The fact that Russia may have nowhere else to go to procure arms parts – particularly connectors, pumps and diesel engines – since its own tepid manufacturing sector is hard put to ratchet up production is lending Beijing more leverage in the bilateral cooperation in weaponry research and development.
Still, Beijing’s diplomatic and defense rapport with Moscow in recent years has been a big assurance to the Russians as they share more cutting-edge technologies with China, reversing a policy to limit technology transfer aimed at maintaining a “10-year lead” over the Chinese military.
Citing a research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Russia, Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review notes that Moscow no longer regards Beijing as a threat when devising its defense tactics, a policy approved by both President Vladimir Putin and the top brass of the country’s military and diplomatic apparatus.
Vasily Kashin, a researcher at the Russian think-tank, told the magazine that Moscow had opted to share more technologies in exchange for higher-quality Chinese products as well as investment and tourists to shore up its sagging economy.
Also, China still has a lot of catching up to do despite its marked breakthroughs in defense technologies, so Russia will maintain its edge in aero engines, strategic guided missiles, fifth-generation fighter jets, nuclear submarines, and other equipment.
One sign is China’s deeper involvement in the Sukhoi Su-35’s production as a key supplier of parts, components and avionics. Even the concern that China would copy the airframe and offer the copied design on the export market – it had reverse-engineered the Su-27SK and Su-33 to create the J-11B and J-15 – failed to hinder such cooperation.
In November 2015, the People’s Liberation Army became the first export customer for the Su-35 after Moscow and Beijing signed a US$2 billion contract for the purchase of 24 of the fighters. The first four aircraft were delivered in December 2016.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu has told reporters that other than the joint production of Su-35 and co-development for future variants, his ministry has been in close contact with the Chinese for two other major programs concerning the ace S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile and a new anti-ship missile.
Some observers believe Beijing may want to rely on Russian expertise to modernize its YJ-18 anti-ship land attack missiles, which were heavily modeled on the Russian 3M-54 Klub, a family of subsonic cruise missiles.
Technology transfer is not always one-way, as it has been reported that Beijing may export its combat and spy drones to Russia for the latter’s use in Syria. Among the models tipped for export is the the Yunying, a new stealth combat drone that made its debut at the Dubai Airshow in November.
Meanwhile, Moscow is unlikely to frown at the fact that Beijing is using Kiev as a back door to access Soviet technologies, particularly for China’s own aircraft-carrier, missile and aero-engine programs.
“Most of these designs and solutions belong to the 1980s, and why would Beijing emulate these obsolescent technologies from Ukraine when it has established channels with Russia that are working well?” Kashin noted.