Moscow: A long simmering dispute between Russia and China over the blatant piracy and sale of Russian military technology by Chinese arms manufacturers may have finally spilled over with a leading Russian daily, the Moskovsky Komsomolets, reporting that Russia may have conveyed to China its decision not to sell the Su-33 carrier-based fighters to it. It fears that Beijing would produce cheaper export versions of the aircraft, the Komsomolets has said.
According to the report, talks on the sale of 50 Russian Sukhoi-33 (NATO: Flanker-D) fighters, for use on future Chinese aircraft carriers collapsed recently after China requested an initial delivery of only two aircraft for a "trial."
Russian authorities were been deeply chagrined in the past to find that China had produced a copied version of the Su-27SK fighter jet in violation of intellectual property agreements. The two countries have been in negotiations for the sale of these aircraft ever since 2006, but have failed to secure a deal with alarmed Russians seeking intellectual safeguards from the Chinese, who have been refusing to oblige.
The Su-33 is a carrier-based multi-role fighter, tasked for air superiority, fleet defence, air support and reconnaissance missions. The aircraft entered service with the Russian Navy in 1995 and is currently operational on board the Russian Navy's Nikolai Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.
The Su-33 is significantly cheaper, and as effective, as comparable Western models.
In 1995, China and Russia signed a $2.5-billion deal for the local production of 200 Su-27SKs, dubbed J-11A, at the Shenyang Aircraft Corp. Under the deal, the aircraft were to be outfitted with Russian avionics, radars and engines. The deal died a natural death in 2006 after the the Russians discovered that China was developing an indigenous version, the J-11B, with Chinese avionics and systems.
The Russians cancelled the deal with the Chinese already producing 95 of the J-11B version.
The Chinese initially offered to buy 14 of the Su-33B version, but the offer was turned down by the Russians who claimed that at least 24 had to be sold in order to recoup production costs. The last straw appears to have been the latest Chinese offer to pick up two aircraft for ''trials.''
However, the report also suggested that this may not be the end of the road for the deal as the Chinese are in desperate need of the fighter to equip their first indigenous 48,000-ton aircraft carrier, due to take to the waters by 2011.
Beijing has also announced plans to build a nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier by 2020.
Ripping off the comrades
From being 'fraternal,' ideological partners in the global war against Western imperialism in the early 1940s, through to the late 1960s, when relations soured between the two communist neighbours, China received huge stockpiles of Soviet weaponry. The entire gamut of Soviet designed weaponry was copied and produced at Chinese factories and exported to its allies.
These included weapons and platforms such as firearms, mortars, artillery systems, armoured fighting vehicles, tanks, air defence systems and aircraft. The Chinese even produced their own version of the legendary Tupolev Tu-16 Badger intermediate-range bombers, re-designating it as the Xian H-6s.
In the period 1979-1989, Russian analysts stress, China was responsible for the supply of 90 per cent of mortars to Mujahedin insurgents in Afghanistan.
The copying frenzy did not abate with the normalization of relations between Moscow and Beijing in the late 1980s. Anything China could lay its hands on, including cruise missiles, aircraft engines, the Su-27 fighter, were blatantly copied and exported to Beijing allies.
For Russia, it is a genuine dilemma. Arms export is no longer a Cold War imperative, but a bread and butter issue – it earns the Russian State precious foreign exchange and keeps its vast army of talented, and experienced, aerospace and defence industry engineers and scientists employed.
This is where the Chinese can always hope to revive any 'closed' deal.
The smile may yet be on the face of the dragon.