Moscow Experts See Growing Chinese Challenge to Russian Arms Sales


07/6/12: by Richard Weitz

A team of Russian defense analysts at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow have produced the most comprehensive and comprehensible study of the Chinese defense industry in any language.

In Shooting Star: China’s Military Machine in the 21st Century, Mikhail Barabanov, Vasiliy Kashin and Konstantin Makienko provide what looks to be the definitive review of the growing capabilities of the Chinese military-industrial complex.

Although skirting the issue of intent, the authors detail the tremendous improvement in the quality of China’s defense products and technology as well as the implications of China’s growing military power and arms sales potential.

The English version of the book, just published by East View Information Services, is pleasantly easy to read due to the nicely organized and well-written text.

Having such an accessible Russian analysis of the Chinese military-industrial complex is a welcome treat for Western defense analysts.

Whereas a decade ago, “Chinese defense technology was nothing short of primitive,” in the past decade, “China’s defense industry capability has been growing in leaps and bounds.” In some areas “such as aerospace, Chinese manufacturers have leapfrogged two generations of technology.” Developing countries now can circumvent Western-Russian efforts to limit regional arms races by purchasing advanced arms from China. Credit Image: Bigstock

Russian analysts can have considerable insight on the Chinese military since the Soviet Union and more recently the Russian Federation has twice helped launch the arms buildups of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Russian industry continues to be an important supplier of key defense technologies to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The authors highlight their amazement at the rapidity of the improvements in China’s defense industry.

Whereas a decade ago, “Chinese defense technology was nothing short of primitive,” in the past decade, “China’s defense industry capability has been growing in leaps and bounds.”

They note that in some areas “such as aerospace, Chinese manufacturers have leapfrogged two generations of technology.”

And the PLA has been the first beneficiary of these defense industrial improvements, especially in the area of air, naval, and missile systems. Although the quality of Chinese weapons systems still typically lags behind that of their Western or Russian equivalents, the PLA’s quantitative superiority can help compensate. The PLA Army is still the world’s largest, while the PLA Navy now has more ships than any other fleet.

The first part of the book analyzes the key characteristics of China’s military-industrial complex, examining the key government agencies and major companies with special focus on the shipbuilding and aerospace sectors. They find great progress in both sectors but note persistent PRC weaknesses compared with the leading Western and Russian defense firms, especially in naval propulsion and aircraft engines. Chinese weapons designers still borrow (sometimes illegally) heavily from foreign designs.

The second part details recent Chinese arms imports and exports. The PRC still buys its most advanced ship and plane engines from abroad, as well as key defense electronics, but no longer purchases entire turn-key weapons systems from foreign sources. Although the PRC’s arms exports are still much less than those of Russia or the United States, the authors anticipate that China will become a leader arms exporter in coming years due to its ability to sell increasingly sophisticated weapons at more affordable prices–often as part of a package deal with economic, trade, and R&D cooperation– to almost any regime regardless of its domestic policies.

They expect Chinese arms sales to enjoy their best success in developing countries that need inexpensive weapons and that cannot purchase Western weapons for political reasons (such as Iran, Sudan, Syria, or Venezuela). These sales will cut into traditional Russian export markets since Russian firms sell to this same market segment. They also anticipate that more countries will follow the practice of Bangladesh, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Turkey and buy PRC-made arms in order to strengthen their diplomatic ties with China.

China’s ten biggest state-owned defense companies now rank among the world’s 500 largest companies, partly due to their large non-defense and often non-core holdings. These civilian markets often provide them with most of their revenues and profits, but their defense contracts receive generous government support and often become the basis for assessing key managers performance and status. These conglomerates often rely on privately owned subcontractors as well as diversified intermediary companies to manage their exports. The government generally limits foreign share ownership of major defense firms.

Despite becoming the world’s largest builder of commercial ships in 2010, Chinese shipyards have yet to carve out a large presence in the international warship market. Its largest deal—a 2005 contract with Pakistan for four Project F-22P frigates—is worth less than one billion dollars. This is partly due to the willingness of Russia and other countries to sell their large number of decommissioned older vessels to foreign navies, but mostly to the continued dependence of China’s shipbuilding industry on imports of naval weapons (especially air defense missiles), electronics (for long0-range radars and hydroacoustics), and propulsion systems (gas turbines). Even so, “To all practical purposes, the Chinese Navy already has unlimited shipbuilding capacity at its disposal.” In addition to providing the PLA Navy with a large number of ships, including four attack submarines each year, China’s shipbuilding industry can sell inexpensive PRC-made hulls that buyers can then outfit with Chinese, Western or Russian weapons.

The inability of Chinese industry to manufacture the latest-generation engines creates a more serious problem in the aviation sector, preventing China from rising to the top global tier in either civilian or military aircraft. Nonetheless, the Chinese government is throwing enormous human and financial resources at developing advanced engines of all types, from gas turbines for ships to piston motors for unmanned aerial vehicles to turbofan engines for heavy fighters, bombers, attack helicopters, and transport planes. Eventually this massive effort, which is being pursued also through foreign partnerships, should allow Beijing to surmount what the authors call “the last major obstacle facing China on its path to becoming a leading arms exporter and a world-class military power.”

The authors see a cyclical patter n to China’s position in the world arms market. “To summarize, since 1949 China has gone through several import-export cycles, each lasting about 12 years,” they write. “Each successive ‘net importer’ period enabled Beijing to lay the industrial and technological foundations for the subsequent ‘net exporter’ period. Viewed another way, China tries to obtain the best foreign weapons it can, but does so partly to incorporate superior foreign technology into its own defense industries, which makes them more formidable competitors.

Furthermore, China’s now unprecedented military industrial capabilities suggest it will not soon become a major arms importer again unless the EU or the United States foolishly end their arms embargos or Russian arms exporters become so desperate for sales that they commit suicide by offering China their very best defense technologies.

Russia has already helped create a powerful military competitor on its doorstep by selling a large number of sophisticated weapons to China in the past two decades, as identified by CAST:

Aerospace weapons:

• 38 Su‑27SK fighter jets (in 1992 and 1996)

• 40 Su‑27UBK combat trainers (in 1992, 1996 and 2000-2002)

• 76 Su‑30MKK multirole fighters

• 24 Su‑30MK2 fighters, equipped to take on naval targets, delivered to the Chinese Navy in 2004

• 95 Su‑27SK kits for the assembly under license of Russian aircraft in Shenyang (1998-2003)

Naval weapons:

• Two Project 956E (Sovremenny class) fleet destroyers

• Two Project 956EM (Sovremenny Mod class) fleet destroyers

• Four diesel-electric submarines: two Project 877EK and two Project 636 (Kilo class) boats

• Eight Project 636M (Kilo Mod class) diesel-electric submarines equipped with the Club‑S missile system

• Two Podsolnukh-E coastal surface wave effect radars China has also purchased the Rif‑M (SA‑N‑6/20) and Shtil‑1 (SA‑N‑12)

Air defense weapons:

• 12 battalions of the S‑300PMU‑1 (SA‑20A) long-range SAM system

• 16 battalions of the S‑300PMU‑2 (SA‑20B) long-range SAM system

• In 1996 and 1999, China took delivery of 27 Tor‑M1 (SA15) short-range self-propelled SAM systems optimized for defense against high-precision weapons.

Ground weapons:

• An estimated 1,000 2K25M Krasnopol‑M 152/155mm guided artillery projectiles

• License for the 2K25M Krasnopol‑M projectiles

• License for the Bakhcha‑U gun turret and for the 9K116‑3 Basnya 100mm gun-launched missile round armed with the 9M117M Kan (AT‑10) guided missile, which is used with the Bakhcha‑U

• License for the 9K119M Refleks‑M 125mm rounds (armed with the 9M119M Invar, AT‑11 missile) and the 9K116‑1 Bastion 115mm rounds (armed with the 9M117M2 Arkan, AT‑10 missile)

• License for the Shmel man-portable infantry flame-thrower

• License for the 2S23 Nona‑SVK 120mm self-propelled mortar-gun (up to 100 of these systems may have been supplied to China)

Compared with India and other major Russian arms buyers, China’s weapons purchases have been characterized by their large volume, relatively dated technology, tight deadlines, good commercial terms, and high political-military and diplomatic risks to Russia (partially negated in the authors’ view by their assessment that “truth be told, Moscow would actually benefit from Washington shifting the focus of its military planning from Russia to China”). The authors correctly note that Israeli and European arms sales (despite a porous embargo) to China have also contributed to the PLA’s recent ascent. But since 2004

China’s arms sales policies have changed during the past few years. They are now characterized by a sharp decrease in the overall purchase of Russian weapons, recurring efforts to end the EU arms embargo, the purchasing of key components such as advanced engines and technologies such as sophisticated avionics rather than large volumes of complete weapons platforms (except for Russian attack and transport helicopters such as the Mi-17), the importing of internal security equipment from countries embargoing the sale of military weapons, an increasing volume of Chinese arms exports, and a lack of interest in partnering with Russia to jointly develop, manufacture, and export advanced weapons.

Algeria, Venezuela, and India have now surpassed China in their value of new Russian weapons contracts.

Today China can offer prospective arms buyers two fourth-generation fighters (the FC‑1 and the J‑10), MA60 transport aircraft, the L 15 trainer jet, Project F‑22P frigates, Z‑9 and Z-11 helicopters, Type 90 tanks, light armored vehicles, self-propelled and towed artillery, many types of trucks, and a variety of anti-ship, anti-tank, and anti-air missile systems. During the last five years the expansion of Chinese arms sales to Latin America and Africa has been especially noteworthy.

The authors see some benefits from China’s growing military might and arms exports, including rising arms purchases, sometimes from Russia, by China’s nervous neighbors.

But they acknowledge the obvious challenge China’s rising defense potential presents to Russia, ranging from China’s need to purchase fewer Russian arms imports to the growing competition PRC firms will present to Russian companies in the international arms market (they both sell moderately sophisticated and modestly priced weapons primarily to developing countries unaffiliated with and often hostile to the West) to the implications for Russia’s own security from having a more powerful neighbor that might again become an adversary.

The CAST team also recognizes the challenge China’s rise presents to the world as a whole: “We believe that China’s defense industry and arms trade are on an upward trajectory,” the authors conclude, “and are confident that in the foreseeable future, the Chinese military-industrial complex will only grow in significance as China develops a new, more active and seemingly inevitable aggressive foreign policy.”

For example, developing countries now can circumvent Western-Russian efforts to limit regional arms races by purchasing advanced arms from China.

One issue the authors leave aside is why China is seeking to develop such a powerful military machine. Russian analysts and government officials typically decline to comment on China’s motives, but the book’s detailing of China’s growing military capabilities invariably raises the issue of intent. Are all these PRC defense enterprises simply engaging in various forms of profit maximization or corporate status seeking, or is Beijing systematically orchestrating the massive transformation—and if so, to what end?

That said, any Western analyst of China’s defense potential and policies will find this text obligatory reading to understand the multi-dimensional nature of the Chinese military buildup–whose magnitude, ironically, recalls the Moscow-directed Soviet grasp for superpower primacy of the 1970s and 1980s.