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The Dynamics of Russian Weapon Sales to China

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | March 1997

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For the past few years China has acquired substantial amounts of Russian military and dual-use technologies. These acquisitions are a key element of the rapidly developing Russo-Chinese entente and play a prominent role in their mutual relationship. But the arms sales also reveal much about the nature of Russia's policy process.

Arms sales are now critical to Russian defense industry because the state cannot afford to procure weapons for its own forces. Exports remain essentially this industry's sole source of income. Although many defense firms have received subsidies of one sort or another, and even recently obtained their own ministry to defend their interests, only if they export can they be sure of surviving. China's hunger for weapons imports matches Russia's need and creates a perfect fit between both sides. But close examination of this industry's activities indicates that it is selling China state-of-the-art systems and weapons or licenses, like the license for the SU-27 Fighter, without government authorization. In other words, Russia's government has lost control over its arms sales program but dares not react negatively, despite the military implications of such transfers for its own security.

The reasons for this are essentially two-fold. One is that under President Boris Yeltsin a privatization of state policy has taken place. Private lobbies, sectors, and factions are able to seize control of state policy and state assets and exploit them exclusively for their own narrow interests. No concept of national interest operates here even though these groups invariably choose to present their activities in the light of advancing Russian national interest. For example, arms sellers argue that now that they can sell freely abroad, their program of unrestricted sales will allow Russia to compete with the United States in Asia and save its defense industry in the bargain.

These arguments neglect deeper strategic analyses of China's objectives in Asia and the general Asian security balance. They focus singlemindedly on getting state subsidies and cash, much of which goes unreported or into private bank accounts. In effect, China is able to exploit these industries' and officials' greed, and the absence of central coordination to get the best deals for itself. So the first reason why the government does not stop the uncontrollable and uncontrolled sales is its inability to do so at a time when officials also obtain private gains.

The second reason pertains to Russia's policy perspectives, which view China increasingly as a strategic partner and, even in some official or quasi-official documents, as an ally. This partnership is explicitly directed against the United States as apower that allegedly seeks to restrict Russia's and China's pursuit of their national interests. Russian spokesmen say China supports the reunification of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) under Russian auspices, opposes NATO expansion, offers markets for Russian producers besides arms firms, and supports Russia's participation in Asian international for a. Of course Beijing knows that Russia needs it to enter organizations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and exploits that understanding in every way possible, since Russia is the demandeur in the relationship. Still, Russian policy, despite complaints by several public figures and military men concerning its strategic implications, is firmly pro-Chinese and evidently seeks to align itself on every issue of Asian and international security with Beijing.

Increasingly, Russia is associating itself with China's policies for Asia and its outlook on world politics, seeing in this a way to obtain greater leverage as one of the poles of the emerging multipolar world. But while Russia obtains some cash (not as much as one would expect given the costs of these systems) and psychological or intangible benefits, China registers material gains. Russia plays gendarme for China in the volatile Central Asia, sparing China the need to intervene there to seal off the area from its rebellious Xinjiang province. China gets badly needed weapons, technology, and the services of Russian scientists at a low relative cost. It gains permanent leverage among regional and central lobbies who are influential players in the Russian policy process as well as a hold on many corrupt Russian officials. Beijing obtains support for its policies in Taiwan and, vis-à-vis ASEAN and the Spratly Islands issue, China also has won Moscow's support for its domestic programs that repress human rights. Russia pointedly ignores China's domestic repression of human rights which remains a source of tension in the Sino-U.S. relationship.

All these factors suggest that Russo-Chinese ties signal a relationship that is being driven by China's strategic interests and the private interests of Russia's arms dealers and other anti-Western elites as much, if not more, than by a reasoned calculation of Russian strategic or national interest. The bilateral relationship, despite U.S. complacency about it until now, has gone beyond normalization and friendship. But in view of the fact that much of Russian security policy is clearly out of control and being driven by China and a visceral anti-Americanism in Moscow, we need to show greater interest and concern over the evolving character of Russo-Chinese relationships.


Clearly Sino-Russian friendship is in the interests of both states and Asia. But the trends in the relationship suggest a tendency to form a bloc against the West notwithstanding both sides' denial of plans for an alliance. The military trends are equally disquieting. The Russian arms industry is out of control and is not animated by any coherent sense of strategic imperatives other than making money for defense producers, as well as relieving them of the need to reform their antiquated and destructive past structures and their relationship with the state.

China has clearly exploited the chaos in this program, Russian elites' and producers' corruptibility, as well as their dependence on the Chinese market. Beijing strives to enhance its own strategic position and obtain a relationship where Russia follows China's agenda and needs it more than ever to enter Asia. And in return for all this, China not only gains a permanent and influential lobby inside the Russian government and armed forces, it also pays no strategic price for its gains. There is no discernible quid pro quo that Russia has extracted in return for its unilateral worsening of its strategic position vis-à-vis China.

At the same time Russian producers and the government want to sell to everyone in Asia regardless of the consequences. Russia has recently sold helicopters to Pakistan even as it intensifies its sales to India, and even as the latter asks more questions about the reasons for its sales to China.102 While there may be some answers, like posing a common front against Islamic self-assertion, this does not suffice as a strategic rationale for these highly secretive substantial arms and technology transfers. For example, China's NORINCO defense plant obtained the ability for serial production of the BMP-1 without ever formally obtaining a license, simply by technology transfer through unofficial sources.103 We also do not know if there are secret understandings concerning military actions involving China and Russia in an allied or cooperative relationship, perhaps involving Taiwan and the provision to China of Russian satellite intelligence if and when Beijing acts against Taiwan.

We see only the tip of an iceberg when we look at these arms sales to China. That iceberg is also made up of other Russian sales to Asia and of whatever other understandings exist between Moscow and Beijing. While publicly the U.S. Government welcomes or does not criticize the close Sino-Russian relationship and arms sales, in fact we do not know or seem to show much interest in their full dimensions.104 Based on the conditions that govern Russian arms sales to China, this complacency seems misplaced. If Asian, U.S., and other ships of state blunder along without seeing this iceberg, when they meet it, the results could be titanic.


102. FBIS-NES-96-072, April 12, 1996, pp. 66-67.

103. Miasnikov, pp. 231-232; Lin Jingjie, pp. 253-254; FBIS SOV, October 5, 1996.

104. See Northeast Asian Peace and Security Network, July 18, 1996, for the remarks of Franklin Kramer, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs on his recent trip to China; and Sherman Garnett, "Russia's China Problem," Moscow Times, November 20, 1996.