With the recent signing of the major gas deal between China and Russia amidst the entire situation in Ukraine, there has been a big push by the media and Putin himself to frame all of this as somewhat of an alliance between the countries. While I generally think this is overplayed, I think the military cooperation part of things can be explored. Russia is coming to China from a position of weakness and is probably willing to sell technology they were not willing to before. The question is what China actually wants from Russia at this point.
Last year, I talked about the possible Su-35/Lada deals here. At this point, I would bet that neither deal goes forward. Even if some kind of conventional submarine deal gets signed, it will be more for a design based on Lada that will use mostly Chinese combat systems, engine and weaponry. The Su-35 talks have floated since 2008 and still have not ended up anywhere. The closer we get to J-20, the less it makes sense for China to purchase Su-35. In the recent visit by Putin, the 2 countries signed deals for cooperating on a new upgraded version of Mi-26 and large airliner. In the aviation fields, China’s biggest import from Russia remains to be high performing turbofan engines.
In the most recent join sea drill between China and Russia, Russia sent a fleet consist of the Slava-Class Cruiser Varyag, a Udaloy class destroyer, a Sov class destroyer and a landing ship. Chinese fleet was consisted of No. 151 Zhengzhou (Type 052C), No. 139 Ningbo (Sov class), No. 112 Harbin (Type 052), 2 Type 054As and landing ships. The drill lasted for 5 days in East China Sea, so it was probably the largest such drill between the 2 countries. If this exercises had taken place in 2005, there would’ve been many articles about how this is a showcase of Russian weaponry for export to China. We certainly don’t hear that kind of talk now. Just by focusing on Type 052C Zhengzhou and Slava-Class Varyag, we can see the different approach China has taken in its naval modernization vs Soviet naval philosophy. In the role of area air defense, Type 052C probably has comparable to superior capabilities to Slava with its 48 cell HHQ-9 VLS and more modern AESA MFRs + combat system vs 64 cell S-300 VLS. It’s pretty much weaker in everything else (close-in air defense, ASuW and ASW). Like its big brother Kirov class, Slava class can operate and pack a lot of punch (with 16 P-500 missiles) by itself, whereas 052C is better served as an air defense escort in a flotilla with other offensive options. When looking at where PLAN has proceeded in its modernization, it makes a lot of sense why China did not purchase the unfinished Slava class Ukraina when it could have done so in the middle of last decade. I have talked about how Sov class had become the white elephants of PLAN, because they could not effective communicate and operate with other ships due to having different combat system, communication equipments and data link. Numerous projects were started in recent years to create subsystem to solve these problems when the Sov destroyers go through their mid-life overhaul. Purchasing the Ukraina or any other Russian warships will have cause similar difficulties in combat and logistics. PLAN seems to have a pretty good direction forward with mass production of Type 052D and Type 055, so it has not been tempted to buy Russian hardware since early 2000s.
Since combat aircraft and submarine purchases also seem unlikely with the slow progress of talks over Lada and Su-35, what else is China still buying from Russia outside of the engines? New purchase of S-400 SAMs is possible, but China seems to be doing pretty well with the success of HQ-9 in the Turkey competition. Transport and utility helicopter is another such area. Russia is just finishing the delivery of 48 Mi-171s to China this year and has signed agreement for developing an improved Mi-26 with China. It looks like both of these helicopters should see more orders in future even as more domestic options like Z-15 and Z-20 become available, since they occupy different roles. Another area is in large transport aircraft and tankers, where China has been purchasing refurbished IL-76s from Russia and IL-78s from Ukraine. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine could possibly give Ukraine more incentive to sell refurbished IL-76/78s and former Soviet designs (possibly improved version) to China. One interesting example is Zubr class LCAC where Russia and Ukraine argued over Ukrainian right to sell license production of Zubr class to China. The second Zubr was shipped early to China due to its shipyard’s location in Crimea. Now that Crimea has become part of Russia, China will probably continue to build more Zubrs as needed without further negotiation with Russia.
The final area where China would want Russian help is nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. I think even with China’s stronger bargaining power, it is still nearly impossible for Russia to sell plans for Tu-160 or Akula-II to China. The most it could get here are design help for these strategic platforms.
As we move forward, I think we will get to a point where Russia will start buying military subsystems from China. That will be quite a shift from where things were 2 decades ago.