A booth of the China North Industries Group Corp Ltd at the International Military-Technical Forum Army 2018 in Moscow. Photo: Norinco
A booth of the China North Industries Group Corp Ltd at the International Military-Technical Forum Army 2018 in Moscow. Photo: Norinco

For decades, Russian-made arms and weapons were a pillar of income in trade with China, as defense contractors and equipment suppliers – Sukhoi, Uralvagonzavod, Almaz-Antey and others – raked it in by selling fighter jets, tanks, guided missiles and military technology to the People’s Liberation Army.

But now, Beijing has indicated it wants arms sales to be a two-way business between China and Russia.

The one-way flow of arms from Russia amounted to US$859 million last year according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, whose numbers didn’t include unguided munitions, small arms and other undisclosed transactions.

Some big-ticket deals include China’s $2 billion purchase of 24 Su-35 fighter jets, 14 of which reportedly joined the PLA’s fighter fleet in 2016-2017, as well as six S-400 missile defense systems for $3 billion, expected to be delivered by the end of the year.

For China, amicable ties with Russia have meant a reliable source of cutting-edge weapons amid the West’s arms embargo. This was especially so in previous years when its still-nascent domestic defense industry failed to ramp up research and development and production to arm the PLA.

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Chinese and Russian representatives are seen at the China North Industries Group Corp Ltd booth at a trade show in Moscow. Photos: Norinco

Chinese arms companies have been making inroads into Russia, strutting their stuff at the International Military-Technical Forum Army 2018 arms trade show held by the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow this month.

VT4 main battle tanks, PLZ-52 155mm self-propelled howitzers, HJ-10 anti-tank missiles and Tianlong-50 air defense missiles were among the key exhibits from the China North Industries Group Corp Ltd (Norinco), when the state-owned defense conglomerate made its debut at the annual arms show.

Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya also reported that China Electronics Corp and Shandong-based IRay Technology Corp, a company specializing in infrared thermal imaging, were among the platoon of Chinese exhibitors eager to strike deals with buyers from Russia and post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The agency said it was the Russians who invited their Chinese counterparts to the show as the country, grappling with under-capacity, was looking for ways to work around US sanctions and procure products from China, either through technology transfer or by setting up joint ventures.

China has wrested more market share from competitors in global arms sales, almost doubling its share of 3.8% in 2012 to 6.2% in 2016, rising to the third spot globally after the US and Russia, according to the Stockholm-based think-tank on global defense and militaries.

One reason for China’s surge is that, unlike the US and Europe that typically tie deals to human-right records and ration supplies, arms and weapons from China are sold with no strings attached.

Read more: What China, Russia want from each other in weapon R&D

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