Transforming Sino Russian Defence Relationship

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The main stay of People Liberation Army modernization has been supply of Russian equipment. Thus, there has been a steady flow of Russian aircraft, frigates, submarines and even hovercraft to Beijing over the years. A recent report in the Ria Novosti however indicated that this special relationship was undergoing a change despite the largely successful exercise Peace Mission 2007 involving Russian and Chinese troops along with other Central Asian militaries. For the first time Moscow is showing signs of concern over supply of high technology military equipment to China. Perhaps Russia has realized that Chinese capability to absorb and reverse engineer technology has increased exponentially. Thus, Beijing would be able to produce excellent copies of Russian ships and submarines in the years to come. China’s growing economic power also implies that with a modern military, Moscow will not be able to coerce Beijing with its superior weaponry and powerful military.

The first signs of a slow down in relationship are as per Ria Novosti are the lack of meetings of Russian and Chinese intergovernmental commission for the last two years whereas it was an annual or even a biannual feature previously. There are also no major Chinese contracts pending with the Russian defence industry and Russian arms exporters do not expect any increase in sales volumes to China, which had reached $6.5 billion.

The latest equipment delivered to China by Russia are four Project 956-E Sovremenny-class destroyers featuring 3M-80E Moskit (SS-N-22 Sunburn) supersonic anti-ship missiles, two Project 877-EKM Varshavyanka (Kilo)-class diesel-electric attack and two Project 636 Amur (improved Kilo)-class submarines with Club-C anti-ship missile systems built at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg. Sukhoi Su-27MKK fighter assembly kits, as well as AL-31F engines and avionics have also been delivered, to an aircraft plant in Shengyang. The contracts pertaining to S-300PMU and Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems have also been fulfilled.

What is critical however is the Ilyushin Il-76MD, strategic lift aircraft, which would have added to Chinese rapid reaction capability, has not been supplied so far as the Chkalov Aircraft Production Plant in Tashkent, Uzbekistan could not deliver the planes. Russian efforts to shift this production to Ulyanovsk Aircraft Plant in the Volga region have also not succeeded.

The report also goes on to state that the General Armaments Department of the People’s Liberation Army is keen to buy large batches of Russian-made Shmel (Bumblebee) rocket infantry flame-throwers, 120mm Nona-SVK and Vena self-propelled guns, 152mm Msta-S self-propelled artillery systems, 300mm Smerch (Tornado) multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRSs), T-90S main battle tanks, BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), Mil Mi-28N Havoc and Kamov Ka-50 Hokum “Black Shark” attack helicopters, various types of three-dimensional radars, naval Shtil-1 R-29RM (SS-N-23) surface-to-air missiles on vertical launchers, as well as electronic counter-measures (ECM) systems, Ka-27 and Helix Ka-28 ship-borne helicopters, know-how for manufacturing fourth-generation and fifth-generation aircraft engines, highly alloyed steels and other materials. This indeed is a long list of varied equipment, which would greatly increase the mobility, firepower and surface, as well as air forces capability of the PLA in the years to come.

This would be a sizeable order for the Russian arms industry. However, the Chinese are increasingly demanding production licenses and more advanced weaponry with joint production capability, which the Russians have been reluctant to provide recently. Russian experience with RD 93 aircraft engines which were transferred by China to Pakistan to be installed in the JF 17 fighter could have dissuaded Moscow from a across the board military production support to Beijing.

Despite its many advances in indigenisation, China is faced with problems of full-scale production of high-grade weapons and systems. Metallurgy is one of the key problems faced by Beijing. Reports after Peace Mission 2007 indicate that the suspension of the Chinese APCs and 100 mm self propelled guns failed in the rugged terrain at the Russian 34th Motorized Rifle Divisions training facility near Chebarkul in the Urals. Metal fatigue is reportedly identified as a major cause in the preliminary inquiries.

There is no doubt that both Russia and China need to go ahead with defence equipment relationship. The issue is how this can be established equitably. Both sides appear to be attempting a hard bargain. Beijing is trying to reduce orders to Moscow and is also looking towards other suppliers including European defence agencies though European Union sanctions prevents these nations from supplying weapons to Beijing. With all European nations less UK facing falling sales of military equipment, a review of EU policy may come about, if Beijing tries hard to convince them that Tiananmen Square is way behind and the new image of China is that of Olympics 2008. Greater engagement could well induce Russia to offer favourable terms in the future.

India is also faced with more aggressive pricing policy by Moscow, but is relatively comfortably placed due to the well-entrenched defence relationship between the two countries. Thus while there may be some review of prices, the flow of Russian equipment along with production licenses and technology transfers is likely to continue apace. Russia is also not worried about India’s increased regional clout, as there is no clash of interests between the two countries.

Beijing’s growing economic power and Chinese aggressive approach on the other hand has led to a review in Moscow, which fears a strong neighbour may not be in its overall interests. This may be particularly galling if Russia has been instrumental in equipping this, ‘strong neighbour’, thus a review in the overall relationship seems to be in the offing.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.