China has been one of Russia's best export customers for weapons, but it is a relationship neither side feels entirely comfortable with.
One example is that China bought Russian fighters – strengthening relations – then built copies of them – creating tensions between Beijing and Moscow.
A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) suggests more difficulties are ahead. In releasing the new document, “China’s Energy and Security Relations with Russia: Hopes, Frustrations and Uncertainties,” Paul Holtom, the director of the the institute’s arms transfers program says "Russia is unwilling to provide China with advanced weapons and technology primarily because it is concerned that China will copy Russian technology and compete with Russia on the international arms market.” And, he adds, “the nature of the arms transfer relationship will increasingly be characterized by competition rather than cooperation.”
A turning point came in 2005, the report states, when China moved from importing complete systems, with China becoming more reliant on its own industry and imports from Russia dropping. In 2010, imports had fallen drastically to the lowest level since 1998.
That does not mean deals have dried up. China is still interested in the S-400 air defense system and Il-476 transport – two areas its own developments are lagging in.
Sipri analysts also see other areas where Russia will remain a critical supplier, including long-range strike and tanker aircraft, as well as high-performance ship-launched land-attack missiles, mainly because, again, China's industry still lags.
Sipri argues that “China has been unable to substantially diversify its arms and military technology suppliers. There are thus opportunities for Russia to remain China’s primary foreign arms supplier, although there are questions as to whether Russia is willing and able to meet China’s changing demands for transfers of technology and components rather than finished weapons systems.”
But there are obstacles also from the Chinese side. Sipri points to Chinese frustration over delays and poor quality of some imports from Russia.
What is more, China also is working with other former Soviet states to gets its arms supplied, such as Ukraine. Sipri notes that “the volume of planned Chinese purchases of Ukrainian arms and military equipment during 2010–12 is approximately $1.2 billion, compared with $1.5 billion for all of 2002–2009.”
Still, perhaps the most critical aspect of the arms relationship between Russia and China will be the status of the U.S. and European Union arms embargoes against Beijing.
Sipri points out that “national export control agencies of EU member states have interpreted the EU arms embargo flexibly, particularly with regard to dual-use products and technologies. For example, EU member states issued export licenses worth more than €210 million and exported at least €58 million worth of military equipment to China in 2009. Additionally, the PLA has drawn on transfers of civilian technologies from EU member states and resulting improvements in Chinese civilian industry.”
So the biggest threat of Russian arms exports to China could be the EU, rather than the state of the bilateral relationship between Moscow and Beijing.
Asked recently about arms sales to Beijing, Ian King, BAE Systems chief executive says he does not see the arms embargo against China lasting in perpetuity.