Russia is resuming the supply of advanced weapon platforms to China in a move that may have implications for India.
At the end of last year, Russia concluded a framework agreement with China for the sale of four Amur-1650 diesel submarines. In January it signed another intergovernmental agreement for the supply of Russia’s latest Su-35 long-range fighter planes.
If the deals go through, it will be for the first time in a decade that Russia has delivered offensive weapons to China.
It will also mark the first time that Russia has supplied China with more powerful weapon platforms compared with Russian-built systems India has in its arsenals. In the past, the opposite was the rule.
For example, the Su-30MKK jet fighters Russia sold to China were no match for the Su-30MKIs supplied to India at about the same time. The Chinese planes had an inferior radar and without the thrust vectoring engines the Indian version had.
This time the situation looks reversed. The Amur-1650 submarine is far more silent and powerful than the Kilo-class submarines the Indian Navy has in its inventory. India’s Su-30MKI will be no match for China’s Su-35 which is powered by a higher thrust engine and boasts a more sophisticated radar, avionics and weapons, according to a leading Russian military expert, Konstantin Makienko.
China’s acquisition of the Su-35 will also question the wisdom of India’s plan to buy the French Rafale, the expert said.
“The sale of Su-35s to China will shoot down the value of the Rafale for India,” Mr. Makienko, who is deputy head of Russia’s top defence think tank, Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told The Hindu.
“The Rafale will stand no chance against China’s Su-35,” the expert explained. “The Su-35’s Irbis radar has more than twice the detection range of the Rafale’s Thales RBE2, and will lock onto its target well before the Russian plane becomes visible for a retaliatory strike. The 117S engines of the Su-35 are also far more powerful than the Rafale’s Snecma M88.”
The Russian Air Force is just beginning to take delivery of the new aircraft and China may become the first country to import it. The relatively small number of Su-35s China plans to buy, 24, should not deceive anyone, Mr. Makienko said. China followed the same buying pattern for the Su-27, initially ordering 24 planes and ending up with more than 200 Su-27s and its licence-built version, the J-11.
The supply to China of more advanced weapon platforms than those available to India appears to contradict some basic geopolitical realities. India remains Russia’s most trusted partner whose defence requirements have never been refused. By contrast, Russia has always been apprehensive of the Chinese dragon and suspicious of its intentions towards resource-rich and population-poor Siberia.
Calls for restraint
There is consensus in the Russian strategic community that Moscow should exercise maximum restraint in providing China with advanced military technologies. Experts were shocked to find out that Chinese engineers had mastered the production of clones of most weapon systems cash-strapped Russia supplied to China in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Russian arms sales to China plummeted in recent years as China switched to domestic production, while Moscow became more cautious in offering Beijing cutting-edge technologies. Not only did China illegally copy Russian weapon systems, but it also began to export those undercutting Russian sales of higher-priced original platforms.
Some experts even called for a complete halt to arms sales to China, arguing that demographic pressures and a growing need of resources may one day push China to turn Russian weapons against Russia.
“We should stop selling them the rope to hang us with,” warned Alexander Khramchikhin of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis.
However, the risks of selling advanced weapons to China took a back seat in Moscow’s calculations after Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term a year ago. Last year, Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, signed contracts with China worth $2.1-billion, the company’s head Anatoly Isaikin said recently. The renewal of sophisticated weapon supplies to China should be seen in the context of geopolitical games in the China-U.S.-Russia triangle.
“The balance of power between America and China will to a large extend depend on whether and on which side Russia will play,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, foreign policy analyst.
Russia and China are revitalising defence ties at a time when their relations with the U.S. have run into rough waters. Moscow is deeply disappointed with Mr. Obama’s policy of “reset,” which is seen in Moscow as a U.S. instrument of winning unilateral concessions from Russia, while Beijing views Mr. Obama’s strategic redeployment in the Asia-Pacific region as aimed at containing China.
Russian defence sales to China are also driven by profit motives as arms manufacturers seek to compensate for the recent loss of several lucrative contracts in India, where they face growing competition from the U.S., Europe and Israel. Also, Moscow seems to be less concerned today about the so-called “reverse engineering” of Russian weapons in China as the ability of the Chinese industry to copy critical technologies appears to have been overrated.
“China’s programme of developing the J-11B family of aircraft based on the Su-27 platform has run into problems,” said Vasily Kashin, expert on China. “China’s aircraft engines, which are essentially modified version of Russian engines, are way too inferior to the originals and China continues to depend on the supply of Russian engines.”
In the past three-four years, China has bought over 1,000 aircraft engines from Russia and is expected to place more orders in coming years.
“When and if China succeeds in copying Russia’s new weapon platforms the Russian industry will hopefully move ahead with new technologies,” Mr. Kashin said.
India can also easily offset the advantage that new Russian arms supplies may give China, experts said.
“To retain its edge in military aviation, India needs to speed up the development of a 5th-generation fighter plane with Russia and go for in-depth upgrade of its fleet of Su-30MKI fighters,” Mr. Makienko said.
However, the resumption of massive Russian arms supplies to China could still be a cause for concern in India. Closer defence ties between Moscow and Beijing are an offshoot of strong dynamics of their overall relations. China is Russia’s top commercial partner, with bilateral trade expected to touch $90 billion this year and soar to $200 billion by 2020. Mr. Putin has described China’s rise as “a chance to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy.”
This contrasts with sluggish trade between India and Russia, which stood at $11 billion last year; even the target of $20 billion the two governments set for 2015 falls short on ambition. India risks being eclipsed by China on the Russian radar screens. As Russia’s top business daily Kommersant noted recently, even today, Russian officials from top to bottom tend to look at India with “drowsy apathy,” while Mr. Putin’s visit to India last year was long on “meaningless protocol” and short on time and substance.