Commerce and technic

Commercial and technical cooperation

The negotiations on the arms sales to China were started as early as 1990 under Gorbachev government.

China’s military modernization required substantial improvements in its air force, command control and communications, naval power projection and space technology capabilities. Russia was willing to accommodate China in all these areas.

However, the technological superiority of the Russian army in comparison with the PLA created a situation, in which delivery of separate types of the Russian hi-tech weapons like fighter jets, anti-aircraft missile systems and nuclear submarines, was seen as risky from Russian point of view.

Nowadays the situation and the perceptions of both partners have been changed thoroughly. In December 1996, Russia and China reached a series of arms sales agreements, including the Su-27 fighter jets and destroyers. Moreover, they also signed a military technology transfer agreement.

The 2001 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation formed a watershed also in commercial and technical military cooperation.

Though unbinding, the Treaty specified that the parties will have immediate contact and consultations should any of the two parties perceive circumstances that may threaten and undermine peace or its security interests. Before the treaty, the main content of cooperation consisting of Russian arms sales and WMD-related technology transfers to China as well as a few small-scale joint maneuvers of Russian and Chinese navies and border troops starting in late 1990s. The countries have expanded military co-operation dramatically since the 2001 Treaty.

Russia has been China’s main source of new arms since the end of the Cold War and has accounted for 90 percent of the estimated $ 25 billion arms sales to China in 1991-2005.

A large number of Russian military scientists and blueprints were moved to China in 1990s and it has been suggested that those were used in developing China’s own military-industrial complex. In mid 2000s China’s military expenditure was estimated at $ 65 billion and Russia was estimated to have spent $ 50 billion a year.

The underlying driving factor for the large volume of Chinese arms imports from Russia in the 1990s was that China sought to modernize its air force and navy to match those of potential adversaries in the South China Sea and because of “standing” Taiwan problem.

In 1990s and 2000s, the range of arms purchases by China from Russia was large covering among other things:

  • air force modernizing: multi-purpose fighter jets (Su-27 and Su-30) also license production, in-flight refueling aircrafts, AWACS-type aircrafts etc. It is estimated that China has purchased/produced over 600 fighter jets in the context of this cooperation
  • breakthroughs in missile technology by importing systems and prototypes from Russia (numerous regiments of deployed S-300 and Tor-M1 mobile air defense systems)
  • the modernization of the Navy: Kilo-class diesel submarines, Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with supersonic, nuclear-capable Moskit-missiles; Ka-28 (Helix) anti-submarine, destroyer-based helicopters as well as Mi-17 military transport helicopters
  • transfer of knowledge for upgrading of China’s military potential. Russia and China have established mechanisms for military technology transfer and intelligence sharing. Russia even allowed China to use its space-based global positioning system, known as GLONASS.

Since the early 1990s, Russia’s perceptions of China’s end-use of its technology and equipment have largely dictated the pace and scope of military-technical cooperation. During the height of Russian arms sales to China in the early to mid-2000s, Beijing was an ideal partner for Moscow to buy its outdated systems and to license older generations of defense technology.

The Chinese–Russian Joint Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation sets the framework for arms transfer deals and is chaired by Chinese and Russian defense ministers. The Commission met regularly in 1992–2005 but did not meet in 2006 and 2007. Following the peak of Russian arms sales to China in 2005–2006, China’s purchases of arms entered a cooling-off period. During this period, Moscow appeared increasingly suspicious of Chinese reverse-engineering of Russian weapons systems and hesitated to provide its most advanced systems to China. Much of this drop also coincided with China’s increased imports from Ukraine.

Since 2012, increasing arms sales and closer defense ties have been a key driver of warming China-Russia relations.

When the US and Europe imposed tightening sanctions on Russia following the Crimean issue in 2014, Russia has relaxed its opposition to arms transfers of some of its most advanced systems to China and engaged in more extensive defense industry cooperation with them. China is now fourth in Russian arms imports, according to SIPRI’s year-end 2016 data (behind India, Algeria, and Vietnam).

In 2016 and beyond Russia’s arms sales to China has returned to the level of $ 3 billion a year. Although China remains a major client, access to China’s market is no longer a decisive factor for Russia’s military-industrial complex. China has achieved a noticeably higher level of self-sufficiency in terms of producing its own weapons and military equipment. At the same time, cooperation with Russia remains significant for increasing the potential of the PLA.

An adverse side-effect of Western sanctions has helped synergies to grow in the military-industrial complexes in both countries. Chinese defense manufacturing corporations are more diversified than in Russia, producing a wide range of civilian output, while Russia maintains large advantages in producing purely military output. Moreover, Russian state and private companies have already been working with Chinese defense companies in the civilian sphere. The conclusion is that both countries could benefit from better industrial integration at the national level.

China continued to depend on Russian defense technology—particularly aircraft components. China’s defense industry has long struggled to produce indigenous jet engines for its most advanced combat aircraft. In recent years, China has acquired Russian engines for its newest (4G and 5G) fighters and bombers as they are more reliable and have better performance than Chinese versions.

Given China’s continued dependence on some Russian technologies, China’s arms purchases from Russia have become more selective, seeking out Russia’s latest weapons systems and defense technology, which may reflect the PLA’s ability to absorb more sophisticated capabilities.

Joint development projects

Deepening defense industry cooperation in recent years is a new component of closer military-to-military ties. In recent years, China and Russia have pursued or signed several major agreements to jointly produce systems of common interest. Although the detailed data regarding these joint development projects is usually classified, some information is available:

  • next-generation heavy-lift helicopter
  • LADA-class diesel electric submarines,
  • collaboration in aero-engine technology development project,
  • joint development of the two countries’ satellite navigation systems (Chinese BeiDou and Russian GLONASS),
  • technology cooperation in space and rocket engineering, missiles and ASAT-technology (anti-satellite weapons) as well as in hypersonic missiles
  • technological cooperation in radar systems and
  • projects on advanced materials with space applications

Military leaders of Russia and China see many opportunities for expanding their present military technical cooperation. Toughening of anti-Russian sanctions by the West, as well as the trade dispute between China and the US, have led to an even more active expansion of Russian-Chinese military relations.

BMEWS and its ramifications

In early October 2019, President Putin drops “a bombshell” disclosing that Russia is helping China to build a ballistic missile early warning system (BMEWS), in the yearly session of Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi. The question is of a top secret and powerful system, which radically increases China’s defensive capabilities. Currently only Russia and the United States have such early warning systems in the world.

According to military analysts, China has been studying for years Russia’s missile attack early warning system, the algorithms of its operation and technical capabilities and, finally, it has made a decision that it needs a similar system. Russia is providing both consultative and technology transfer support to China including deliveries of some equipment. The Chinese deal refers to Voronezh meter- and decimeter-range radars (Voronezh-M and Voronezh-DM radar stations developed by RTI Systems Group).

Russia’s missile early warning radar stations are designated to obtain and provide data on missile launches and missile trajectories to warn about coming missile strike against state and military command and control centers. They also provide data on space objects for outer space control. This system means the technologies of over-the-horizon radars capable of detecting the launches of ground- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

New-generation Voronezh-M/DM/CM radar stations make up the backbone of Russia’s ground-based missile early warning system echelon. The Voronezh-system is the most advanced radar with the high-precision target detecting capability. In Russia, four new Voronezh radar stations are on combat duty in the Leningrad, Kaliningrad, Irkutsk and Krasnodar Regions. Three more Voronezh new radar stations have entered experimental combat duty in the Krasnoyarsk, Altai and Orenburg Regions. Next Voronezh-CM station is going to be built in Sevastopol, Crimea by the end of 2020.

Western military and strategic analysts note that this indicates how special relations Russia has with its strategic partner China including the most sensitive areas linked to military-technical cooperation and security and defense capabilities. This indicated that military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow may have evolved from the previous “model alliance” to a “real alliance” with the US as their common enemy target. The new system would help Beijing and Moscow set up a joint early warning ballistic missile network to counterbalance the American global military might.

 This new level of military cooperation is primarily the full-fledged expansion of cooperation to cover strategic arms. By confirming the support to China’s BMEWS, the cooperation moved to the most important and sensitive component in the strategic nuclear forces control system. The precise parameters of Russia’s involvement are not publicly known: is it the question of the ground-based or space-based components, the control system and data-processing system or all the elements.

The new level can be expected to include cooperation in other sensitive fields, such as strategic missile defense, hypersonic technology, ASAT technology and the construction of nuclear submarines. Joining forces in these areas is mutually beneficial for Russia and China in both financial and technological terms, while posing minimal risk to national security and maximizing the strategic posture against the US.

An important issue in Russia-China BMEWS-cooperation is the possible integration of the national systems, which would give both countries a significant advantage in terms of the speed with which they would be warned of a missile strike from the United States. If the two countries take this step (most likely after the Chinese system goes online), Sino-Russian military integration will match the level of the actual military alliance. Another aspect of cooperation could be the transition to joint strategic command post exercises, with the direct participation of senior military personnel.

Worldwide potential consequences

This event may also have an effect on the overall strategic stability, because it may shift global balance of power between great powers, in the US – Russia – China triangle game.

The missile defense, BMEWS and ASAT (anti-satellite weapons) capabilities are likely to harm it to some degree introducing new unpredictability into the US-China-Russia nuclear balance. By the same, the sale of the system and the potential sharing of data between Russia and China further cements a growing de facto military alliance between the two countries which in and of itself is shifting the global balance of power to the benefit of the Sino-Russian camp.