Russia is in negotiations to sell the Su-35 fighter (above) and the Amur-1650 submarine to China. (Rulexip via Wikimedia Commons)
TAIPEI — “Once bitten, twice shy” appears to mean nothing to Moscow in doing business with Beijing.
Russia was badly burned by China a decade ago after an agreement to build the Sukhoi Su-27/J-11A in China ended up being reverse-engineered by Shenyang Aircraft Corp. as the J-11B fighter. China’s decision to ignore intellectual property rights (IPRs) in the Su-27 deal ended further production of the fighter in 2004.
China appears to have made no effort to hide the fact it was violating IPR and would continue to do so. And yet, it was recently announced that Russia is in negotiations to sell the Su-35 fighter and the Amur-1650 submarine to China.
However, China and Russia have been discussing these acquisitions for quite some time, and “they have until recently not made much progress because of the deep lack of trust that Russia has with China about their prior track record in unauthorized reverse engineering and other IPR infractions,” said Tai Ming Cheung, author of the book “Fortifying China.”
The recent change of heart in Moscow could have more to do with “broader geopolitical considerations at play that may trump the strong reservations that the Russian defense industry would have in selling their advanced arms to China,” Cheung said.
Not everyone is happy about Moscow’s direction, including India, a longtime Russian arms importer. India fought one border war with China in 1962 and continues to complain of Chinese military assistance and arms sales to Pakistan.
Nitin Mehta, a New Delhi-based defense analyst, said the reported sale of Amur submarines and Su-35 fighters to China “cannot be ignored and indicates that Indo-Russian defense ties could see some downturn in the future.”
The sales of advanced new equipment, otherwise unavailable from local Chinese industry, could have serious implications for U.S. security commitments in the region.
For the U.S., confronted by falling defense budgets, this means the technological gap between its forces and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will continue to shrink, said Dean Cheng, a research fellow with the Heritage Foundation.
“Worse, the introduction of new, quieter subs and the more advanced fighter aircraft calls into question the ability for the U.S. to control the ‘commons’ — that is, airspace and sea space,” he said. “Future conflicts may not see American dominance of air and sea, and certainly should not be assumed as a given.”
Cheng said this is an “enormous and fundamental strategic shift.” If these sales are confirmed, including the possible sale of Russian Tupolev supersonic Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range strategic bombers to China, it “suggests either an ongoing strategic alignment between Russia and China, with a renewed push since Putin’s re-election, or Russian weakness, wherein they are bargaining with one of the few chips — that is, advanced weapons,” he said.
The Tu-22M3 has a combat radius of 2,410 kilometers and, with refueling, a combat range of 6,800 kilometers, which places Guam, for the first time, well within striking distance of China’s 8th and 9th Bomber Divisions. Tu-22M3s based in the Lanzhou military region will have command over all of India, most of the Indian Ocean and parts of the Middle East.
There is a general agreement that China will initially buy 24 Su-35 fighters, but could procure up to 48. “The exact commercial terms of the deal will be negotiated during this year,” said Vasily Kashin, a researcher at Moscow’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
Russia’s willingness to forget the past and open itself to further abuse appears to have to do with “the price Moscow has to accept for continued access to the Chinese market as the latter’s indigenous capability continues to develop,” said Doug Barrie, a senior fellow for military aerospace with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
There are still dangers for Moscow. The sale of such an advanced fighter, with super-maneuverability, could provide Chinese manufacturers and the military some insight into the direction of the Russian fighter industry, “given that some of the subsystems of the Su-35 are also likely destined for the Russian Air Force’s [Sukhoi T-50] PAK FA [stealth fighter],” Barrie said.
Russia might be more confident of protecting its IPRs on this go-around with China. Kashin said that when China copied the Su-27, information about the fighter was widely available in other parts of the world. This made it easier for China to acquire “Su-27 data and subsystems for testing, studying and using on the J-11B prototypes” from friendly countries, such as former Soviet republics.
However, Kashin said, the Su-35 is just starting to make it into the Russian Air Force.
“Since the production rate is not too high, these aircraft for the coming years will be concentrated just on a small number of bases, which can be strongly supervised by the security service,” he said. “And former [Soviet] republics have no technical data or samples of the aircraft, [so] they hopefully will not be able to get the data by clandestine means.”
Some analysts suggest that China has hit a brick wall in its development of advanced fighters, including misjudged problems with its new stealth fighters, the J-20 and J-31.
However, Roger Cliff, a China aerospace analyst with the Project 2049 Institute, said the Su-35 acquisition does not imply China is having problems with the J-20/J-31. Cliff said China is probably buying the jets as a hedge in case the indigenous J-20 and J-31 programs take longer than hoped. “In this respect, it is probably similar to the U.S. Navy’s approach of developing a more advanced version of the F-18 Super Hornet rather than putting all its eggs in the Joint Strike Fighter basket, which, given the ongoing delays and ever-escalating costs for the F-35, is looking smarter and smarter.”
Another reason for buying them, he said, is even if the J-20/J-31 programs stay on track, the Su-35 undoubtedly contains technology, such as thrust vectoring, that China has not yet mastered.
“The Chinese and Russians are said to be hammering out a framework that will prevent China from stealing the technology in the Su-35, but you can’t stop people from taking something apart and studying it once you sell it to them,” he said. And what they learn from the Su-35 will no doubt, in modified form, make its way onto the J-20 and J-31, Cliff said.
Amur Deal Likely
The Amur-1650 submarine deal appears to be “in the bag,” said Gary Li, head of current intelligence with London-based IHS Exclusive Analysis. “From a strategic point of view, the Amur deal is China continuing its access-denial strategy, which is becoming increasingly comprehensive, though not totally revealed publicly as yet.”
Kashin said a memorandum of understanding was signed between China and Russia for four Amur submarines in 2012. “Chinese companies will be subcontractors for this project, but their share is not expected to exceed 30 percent. More specific negotiations will take place this year and may last until 2014-2015,” he said.
The contract could be worth $2 billion, with two of the submarines built in Russia and two in China. This will make China the first to import the 1650 submarine, with India and Venezuela possibly following suit.
The Amur 1650 is an export version of the Project 677 Lada-class submarine, Kashin said. Compared with the previous Project 877 Paltus-class and 636 Kilo-class projects, the Amur 1650 is a “radically new submarine with new power plant, new automated command-and-control system, new weapons control systems and new acoustics.”
However, because of this amount of innovation, the first submarine of the class faced many problems, which have only recently been overcome. “Currently, 677 submarines are not fitted with AIP [air-independent propulsion],” he said, with the first 677 submarines to be fitted with an AIP system next year.
Some indicators in the Russian media have suggested China has requested the right to fit its own AIP design, based on the Stirling marine engine, in the Amurs, but Kashin doubts this. Stirling engines are used in Swedish Gotland-class submarines, built by Kockums.
Vivek Raghuvanshi in New Delhi contributed to this report.