An Uneasy Ménage à Trois

Reliance on Russian and Ukrainian Weapons Puts China in a Tight Spot

A soldier stands guard near a tank positioned close to the Russian border near the Ukranian city of Kharkiv, March 24, 2014. Dmitry Neymyrok / Courtesy Reuters

China is popularly viewed as the winner in Russia’s clash with the West over Ukraine: For starters, the dispute has diverted the United States’ political energy and resources away from its Asia-Pacific pivot and handed China leverage over Russia on energy and economic issues. But this conflict does not leave Beijing unscathed, especially when it comes to the country’s own defense modernization plans and future security cooperation with Russia. China’s history of technological dependence on Russia and Ukraine—the heirs of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex—is now pulling Beijing in two conflicting directions. It can either markedly increase its reliance on Russia’s defense exports or support Ukraine’s fledgling defense enterprises in order to maintain bilateral trade relations and access to Kiev’s technological expertise. Should Beijing pursue the first option, it might find itself in an uncomfortable situation in which it over-relies on a major power that is not its ally. But the second option could lead to frictions with Moscow, and in effect, defense cooperation with a country that is now a Western ally.                                                  

Between the APEC summit, hosted by China in early November, and the G–20 gathering in Australia a few weeks later, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with officials in Beijing to discuss joint naval drills and the early steps required for forming a Russian–Chinese military bloc in the Asia-Pacific region. Even if this diplomatic meeting is not the beginning of a genuine military alliance, Russia and China have plenty to discuss when it comes to defense cooperation. In 2013 and 2014 they reached deals on several important weapon systems, including the sale of 24 Su-35s, Russia’s most advanced multi-role fighter jets; S-400 air defense systems, which can dominate the air space in the Taiwanese strait; and four Lada-class submarines, half of which will be built in China; as well as the prospective sale of the new IL-476 transport aircraft. In 2013, China only made up 12.5 percent of Russia’s

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