As China has become less of a military hardware customer and more of a developer of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, it has relied less and less on purchases of Russian-made tanks, ships, and warplanes.
That said, China remains a substantial customer of the Russian defense industry, having just been sanctioned by the Trump administration over its recent purchases of S-400 air defense systems and Su-35 fighter planes.
But China’s purchases now fall behind those of India, Russia’s biggest weapons buyer, and Egypt as Bejing relies more on its own weapons development. That has made China more of a partner with Russia in terms of weapons development.
The purchase of Su-35s was made in part because Beijing needed long-range fighters for its South China Sea outposts. Also, China still relies heavily on Russian-made engines for its jets and transport aircraft. And like the S-400, Russia, for now, builds better systems than do the Chinese.
At the same time, Chinese arms exports are growing.
“A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that China accounted for 5.7 percent of the world’s arms exports between 2013-17 – up by more than a third from the 4.6 percent recorded between 2008-12,” the South China Morning Post reports.
And China, which has the money to spend, is also increasingly partnering with Russia to jointly develop arms.
“Sino-Russia bilateral ties have changed from big weapon drives to technological cooperation projects, including a floating nuclear power plant and big aircraft,” said Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert. He added that Russian weapons are less attractive to Bejing these days, but both still work together to develop new weapons platforms.
Analysis: Technologically speaking, the Chinese military, while making advances, has a ways to go before catching up to the other great powers, including Russia. Beijing’s advantage over Moscow is that the Chinese have a much larger economy and therefore have a lot more money to invest in development.
That is proving to be lucrative to the Russians, but it’s proving to be far more valuable to the Chinese in the long run.
While weapons sales, purchases, and joint development projects all work to strengthen ties between the two powers, there is still a level of mistrust, for lack of a better term. Both are still strategic competitors, and Vladimir Putin has to know that the intelligence services of his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, are working overtime to ‘obtain’ as much technology as they can, any way they can, which includes doing so on the up-and-up, through mutual project cooperation.
Working with the Chinese and having them pay for a lot of the development obviously helps Russia. But at what point does the strategic competition kick in and Chinese military development become a serious problem for Putin?
The Russian economy cannot sustain a long-term war — against NATO or against China. That means Putin would have to rely on a short, very violent conflict in order to achieve Russia’s strategic objectives in any war with its neighbor. That means maintaining a technological advantage over a potential rival.
At some point, the Chinese military may very well be on par with Russia’s forces, technologically speaking. That will represent a threat to Putin just like it will represent a threat to the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other countries throughout Asia. Best not to give away all of Moscow’s capabilities to a fellow revisionist power pursuing its own global agenda.
In the meantime, China will likely become a much more senior partner in any joint development projects just because Beijing has the cash. Eventually, though, China will want to go it alone when it comes to weapons development and keep its trade secrets to itself, just like Russia and the U.S. [try to] do now.