Russia-China military cooperation in trouble?

27 Aug 2007


China has postponed high-level military talks on defence technology and put all new military contracts on hold until Russia delivers an overdue shipment of aircraft, according to industry sources. It has also complained about the quality of Russian weapons.

On their part, Russian dealers are outraged over blatant Chinese imitations of their weaponry, built from designs supplied on an explicit understanding that the weapons were to be purchased.

The overdue aircraft are from a deal signed in 2005, in which China agreed to buy 30 IL-76 transport aircraft and eight IL-78 aerial refuelling tankers from Russia. But the Tashkent Aircraft Plant, based in Uzbekistan''s capital, declared soon after the signing that it was unable to build the planes independently owing to financial and technical problems.

To resolve the problem, Russia gave three alternative proposals to the Chinese. The first was to co-produce the plane''s parts in Tashkent, as well as at the Ulianovsk and / or Voronezh aviation factories in Russia, and assemble the aircraft in Voronezh. The second was to completely manufacture the aircraft in Russia. And, the third was to assemble the planes in Tashkent, with parts produced in Russia. But this meant Russia would have to add new equipment to the Ulianovsk and Voronezh aviation factories, so Rosoboronexport asked the Chinese to accept a higher price for the aircraft.

China''s response was swift and savage. It twice postponed an annual high-level conference on cooperation in defence technology. Beijing says that to restart the talks, Russia has to fulfil the aircraft contract. Russia counters that the present problem requires new discussions, without any conditions. US and Japanese negotiators know from beforehand the Chinese tendency to set stringent pre-conditions for political talks and other negotiations. Now, the Russians are feeling the heat.

Shoody goods, says China
To press home its advantage, China also criticised the quality of its Russian weapons, especially about the short service-life of optical and electronic detection devices (IRST) fitted on the SU-27SK fighter. Russia says the problems are caused by improper use, and shows photos of the IRST being used for the Chinese air force''s Su-27SK without protective coverings, even in bad weather.

To compound the problem, the Chinese air force (PLAAF) is one of Russia''s biggest customers. It has bought 100 advanced Su-30MKK multipurpose fighters and 48 Su-27SK fighters. It also obtained license production rights for 200 Su-27SKs and started making them in 1996, but suspended production after 95 Chinese-made J11As were completed last year. Russia also backed out of the deal owing to technical reservations.

The Chinese navy has bought 12 kilo class 877/636 diesel submarines and four 956E/EM missile destroyers, new warships, as well as eight battalions each of S-300PMU/PMU-1 and S-300PMU-2 long range surface-to-air missiles, apart from other naval subsystems for Chinese carriers.

King of cloning
Moscow is unhappy with China''s massive production of copycat versions of Russian weapons. Russian arms manufacturers have been taken by surprise with the sheer speed and scale of China''s copycat capabilities.

Often, Chinese dealers say they want to buy Russian arms, begin negotiations, and ask as many technical questions as possible. They then take photos and videos of the weapons, request all available documents, and repeatedly come back to the table to discuss technical issues.

After major document exchanges and extensive technical negotiations, the dealers disappear. Two or three years later, a Chinese copy of the weapon that was under discussion appears on the market.

The Chinese A100 multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), for example, is almost identical to the Russian SMERCH MLRS. Even the shape is the same! The Chinese PLZ05 155-mm self-propelled gun (SPG) howitzer system (like the Bofors gun) is a copy of the Russian 2S19M1 SPG.

Champion copycat
In the mid-''90s, China asked the Russian Phazotron Radar Design Bureau to help the PLAAF to upgrade the Chinese F8II fighters. China purchased two ZHUK-8II airborne radars from Phazotron, ostensibly to test their capabilities. The PLAAF gained access to many technical documents, as it had promised to buy at least 100 radars. But, the Chinese never came back. Two years ago, the new Chinese F8IIM fighter was launched, with new ''indigenous'' multi-function radar.

When the Chinese navy bought the Russian 956E/EM missile destroyer from Russia, it came with a number of subsystems including the Fregat M2EM 3D radar and the MR-90 tracking radar and sonar. China''s domestic Type 054A missile frigate (FFG) now has an identical radar system. Russian designers from the Salyut factory that developed the radars say the speed at which they have been cloned is "unbelievable".

But Italy and France had almost identical experiences during their military hardware honeymoon with China in the ''80s. China bought two sets of Sea Tiger onboard ship radars, two sets of Crotale air defense missiles, and two sets of Tavitac naval command and control systems from France. It also picked up a few sets of sonar and EW systems from Italy. Chinese versions of the above systems are now standard issue on Chinese navy warships.

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