The beginning of the end for deliveries of Russian major conventional weapons to China


MOSCOW. (Paul Holtom, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) -  for RIA Novosti)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 90 per cent of China's imports of major conventional weapons have been supplied by the Russian Federation. In this period China has become one of Russia's most valued customers, accounting for 39% of Russian exports of major conventional weapons. However, the SIPRI online Arms Transfers Database, which is updated today (Monday 31 March 2008) with information on deliveries and orders made in 2007, shows a 63% drop in Russian deliveries of major conventional weapons to China - to their lowest levels since 1998 - contributing to a 29% reduction in overall Russian exports for 2007 in comparison with 2006. Further, there are no outstanding Chinese orders with Russia for big-ticket items such as ships or advanced combat aircraft.

According to the SIPRI Arms Transfer Database, Russia has delivered major conventional weapons to more than 70 states and other end-users since 1992. These transfers account for 19% of global arms exports, making Russia the second largest arms exporter (behind the USA) for this period. Between 1999 and 2006, SIPRI recorded year-on-year growth in the volume of Russian exports of major conventional weapons, leading to an increase in Russia's share of international arms exports to 26%. This increase has been largely due to orders from China and India. Since the turn of the millennium, these two countries have imported a range of major conventional weapons from Russia - submarines, aircraft carriers, long-range strike, tanker and transport aircraft, and ship-launched land-attack missiles - to demonstrate their regional power status and power projection capabilities. In 2007, China remained the single largest recipient of Russian weapons, accounting for 28% of deliveries (down from 54% in 2006), but India was not far behind with a share of 20% (up from 15%).

Data on arms deliveries can fluctuate sharply from year to year because the delivery of ships and advanced combat aircraft can significantly boost the volume of deliveries in a particular year. For example, the fact that deliveries to China were 63% lower in 2007 than 2006 is better understood by comparing the different military equipment delivered in these two years. In 2006 and 2007, Russia delivered 12 Mi-17 helicopters, radars for Chinese-produced frigates and destroyers, aircraft engines for Chinese-produced combat aircraft, and a range of air-to-air, anti-aircraft, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles. China received an estimated 17 J-11 combat aircraft, built from Su-27SK kits, in 2006, compared to an estimated 11 J-11 in 2007. Most significantly, however, a Sovremenny destroyer and two kilo class submarines were delivered in 2006, while no ships or submarines were delivered in 2007.

A large drop in delivery volumes in 2007 should not in itself be regarded as a signal of a significant change in supplier-recipient relations between Russia and China. Arguably of greater significance for the future of the relationship are the facts that the usually biannual Sino-Russian intergovernmental meetings on military-technical cooperation (MTC) did not occur in 2007, and Russia does not have any Chinese orders for ships or advanced combat aircraft. The lack of significant new orders from China could be caused by its efforts to further develop its own arms industry, dissatisfaction with delays on outstanding orders, or disappointment with the quality of Russian weapons delivered in recent years. Despite this, China is still rumored to be interested in the Russian offer of Su-33 and Su-35 combat aircraft for use on Chinese aircraft carriers. However, there are also reportedly divisions within Russia over whether to meet Chinese requests for advanced Russian weapons systems. There are concerns that China will only buy limited numbers of such systems with a view to ‘copying' them.

Russia's caution is not unfounded. In 1996, China signaled its intention to buy around 200 Su-27SK kits for its J-11 combat aircraft program. In 2004, China revealed that only about 100 J-11 combat aircraft would be constructed from Su-27SK kits, as an increasing share of the components for its J-11 were being produced in China. Then, in 2007, the first prototypes of the J-11B were unveiled, revealing a combat aircraft that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Su-27SMK, but for which a reported 90 per cent of components are Chinese. Some reports say that the J-11B will feature Chinese-produced weapons systems and a WS-10A engine.

Although the Chinese appear to have annulled the contract for the joint development of the J-11, Russian officials have not yet condemned this move. Yet China's behavior perhaps helps to explain Russia's October 2007agreement with India for the joint development and production of a fifth generation combat aircraft. Russia had also discussed the possibility of such a project with China, but October's announcement reinforces the impression that Russia is more willing to transfer its most advanced weapons systems (and possibly even technologies), to India rather than to China.

All these factors, combined with this year's decline in deliveries and orders, suggest that the slump in Russia's arms exports to China will not be temporary. Indeed, in Russia such a drop has been anticipated for some time, and Rosoboronexport and Russian officials have worked hard in recent years to secure alternative orders. The head of the Russian government's Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, Mikhail Dmitriev, announced in late December 2007 that Russia had an order portfolio for an estimated $32 billion worth of arms and military equipment, boosted by significant orders in recent years from Algeria, Indonesia and Venezuela. It remains to be seen, however, whether orders from these states can make up for the expected drop in orders and deliveries to China.

The SIPRI Arms Transfers Database can be accessed free of charge at

A selection of the major conventional weapons delivered to China from Russia during the period 1992-2007

Designation        Type                    Order and              Number                 Number
                    of conventional       delivery                   ordered               delivered 
                       weapon                 period   

Su-27SK            Combat aircraft     1992-2002               54                        54
Su-27SK /
J-11*                Combat aircraft      1996-2007               200                     105
Su-30MK           Combat aircraft       1999-2004              100                      100
Il-76M               Transport aircraft    1992-                     44                      10 in 1993
Il-78M               Tanker aircraft        2005- 4                  0
Mi-17                Helicopter              1996-2007              109                    109
Ka-28PL            Helicopter               1996-2000             10                      10
S-300PMU-1      SAM system            1993-2004              (8)                    (8)
S-300PMU-2      SAM system            2004-                     16                     (10)
Tor-M1             Mobile SAM system   1997-2000             (35)                   (35)
Sovremenny      Destroyer                1996-2006               4                        4
Kilo/Type-877E  Submarine               1993-1995               2                        2
Kilo/Type-636E   Submarine              1993-2006              10                      10

* A contract for licensed production of 200 Su-27SK combat aircraft kits was signed in 1996. The aircraft have the Chinese designation J-11. After the delivery of 105 Su-27SK combat aircraft, the delivery of the remaining 95 kits was cancelled by China.

(...) Brackets indicate that the number of items ordered or delivered is an estimate

Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database,

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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