One theory doing the rounds in the 2000s was that Russian-Chinese military-technical co-operation was going downhill and would inevitably cease altogether. Now, however, it is obvious that the situation has improved, with Russian military exports to China picking up again. The volume of exports has already reached the level of the 1990s and the early 2000s, and may yet beat that record.
However, one difference is how insignificant the arms trade is in the overall structure of co-operation between the two countries. In the 1990s, military-technical co-operation was one of the pillars of mutual trade, and served as the basis for their bilateral partnership.
After Russian arms exporters had broken into new markets in the 2000s, China’s share in the total volume of exported Russian military equipment decreased noticeably. According to published data, Russian arms exports to China peaked during the early years of the last decade.
China is still a major buyer of Russian weapons, second only to India. However, China is no longer crucial to the survival of the Russian defence industry. According to a 2012 statement by Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, exports accounted for only 22 per cent of the national defence industry’s total revenues, while 45 per cent came from sales to the national armed forces.
This growing domestic demand, and new export markets, and diversification into civilian markets, has lessened arms manufacturers’ dependence on Chinese contracts, while providing Moscow with a significant degree of freedom in negotiating future contracts with Beijing.
The data available indicates that Russian military exports to China exceeded US$1.9 billion in 2011, and expanded last year. As for the newly signed contracts, Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport reports that China accounts for 12 per cent of the overall US$17.6 billion in new arms sales; this puts the total contracts signed with China at more than US$2.1 billion.
Of this figure, US$1.3 billion worth of contracts have been accounted for. These include a US$600 million deal to deliver 52 Mil Mi-171E helicopters, and a US$700 million order for 140 Saturn AL-31F engines.
These powerplants are intended for the Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighters previously sold to China, and for indigenous Shenyang J-11B/BS, J-15 and J-16 warplanes.
No one really knows the nature of the contracts for the remaining US$800 million, but may assume that these represent a number of relatively minor orders.
Aero engine exports to China stayed at a relatively significant level throughout the past decade. Sources in the Chinese aerospace industry say the country will continue to buy powerplants from Russia at the same rate in the years to come.
In fact, the number of newly ordered engines may even grow. While Chinese air-framers have achieved impressive results, the country’s military warplane engine technology remains at a relatively low level of development. All the three indigenous fourth-generation fighter designs are powered by Russian engines: the AL-31F for the J-11B, the Saturn AL-31FN for the Chengdu J-10, and the Klimov RD-93 for the CAC FC-1.
China’s newest Xian H-6K long-range bomber is also fitted with Russian engines of the Soloviev D-30KP2 design. The country’s two fifth-generation fighter programmes, the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31, are in the flight-testing phase, and China is apparently interested in fitting them with Russian next-generation engines, including the Saturn 117S, which powers the Sukhoi Su-35. In addition, virtually all Chinese-built military and civilian aircraft designs are equipped with imported powerplants.
In terms of helicopter exports to Beijing, apart from contracts for transport helicopters, it is expected that China will continue limited procurement of Kamov’s special-mission aircraft, which are either impossible or unfeasible to clone locally in the foreseeable future.
One traditional aspect of bilateral arms trade is represented by joint research and development efforts, or by research and development programmes run by Russia in China’s interests.
These include some key Chinese weapons systems, such as the PL-12 air-to-air missile, the HQ-16 SAM system, the Hongdu L-15 combat trainer, the CAIC WZ-10 combat helicopter, the FC-1 tactical fighter, the Project 054À frigate.