Moscow has quietly resumed sales of advanced arms technology to Beijing in a move that signals geopolitics and economics are trumping concerns about Chinese cloning of Russian weapons. 

This week Chinese and Russian officials attending the Zhuhai air show jointly announced that Russia would deliver the first batch of four advanced Su-35 fighters to Beijing later this year.

“We are now fulfilling the contract” signed last November, said Vladimir Drozhzhov, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military Technical Co-operation, noting that China had signed an agreement to protect Russia’s intellectual property. 

Chinese pilots are training in Russia with the aircraft and will eventually fly them back to China, according to Russian news reports. The $2bn deal for 24 jets is expected to be completed in three years. While China this week unveiled its own advanced stealth fighter, big deployments of the aircraft are not expected for several years after that.

China is the world’s second-biggest military spender, with a $215bn budget last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It was the third-biggest importer of weapons between 2011 and 2015, while Russia was the second-biggest arms exporter.

The Su-35 deal, along with a 2014 agreement to sell Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile, which could arrive in China by 2018, amounts to a lifting of an informal ban on selling advanced systems to China in place since roughly 2004.

Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles, the country’s most advanced, on display in Red Square last year © Reuters

Overall, the two countries have $8bn in contracts, according to Mr Drozhzhov.

Vasily Kashin, an expert on China’s arms industry at the Higher School of economics in Moscow, says the deals are “a clear sign that China is back as one of Russia’s top arms importers”.

Experts say Russian technology will boost China’s air defence capability significantly, as Beijing’s relations with the US sour over maritime disputes in the western Pacific. 

“Given Russia’s current practice of doing whatever it can to complicate the strategic planning of the US and its allies, it is not surprising that Russia would be prepared to release some of its advanced weaponry to China,” said Allen Behm, a security analyst in Canberra and former strategic planner for the Australian defence department. 

Beijing’s dependence on Moscow’s technology was greatest in the 1990s when China was modernising its armed forces and Russian domestic military budgets had dried up.

“During the 1990s, Russia’s defence industry survived using two aqualungs — China and India,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow and editor of Shooting Star, a book about China’s defence industry.

But Moscow soured on the relationship after a number of Russian weapons systems were copied by Beijing — most famously the Su-27/30 fighter, which became the J11. The aircraft were originally produced under a licence agreement, which Russia accused China of violating when it produced its own version of the plane. 

“That is something the Chinese do all the time in every sector of the economy,” said Mr Kashin. “You just have to calculate the risk.”

After that, “there was a pause” starting in 2004, said Mr Pukhov. “We were sick of their reverse engineering and their local designers managed to convince the political leadership that they could do this all themselves.” 

But by 2014 a number of factors had combined to bring the two countries back together.

China decided it still needed Russian technology. Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert in Beijing, said that while Russia’s defence assistance to China was not on the scale of the “tremendous boost” of the 1980s and 1990s, “Russian weapons do improve the combat capability of the PLA”.

Meanwhile, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, economic sanctions and low oil prices have left Moscow hungry for foreign exchange. “Suddenly [Russia] is in a de facto cold war with the west and we needed Chinese political support,” said Mr Pukhov.

While negotiations for the S-400, Russia’s most advanced missile system, and the Su-35 started before the events in Ukraine, the final agreements were reached afterwards. Mr Kashin said the risk of cloning the Su-35 or S-400 is small because there is no technology transfer licensed by the agreement.

“People tend to overestimate this,” he said. “It is impossible to copy an aeroplane engine, and even copying electronics takes so long the other side will usually be able to develop a new system in that time.”

Russia will soon launch the even more advanced 2-500 surface-to-air missile and T-50 fighter. 

There are still some things Russia will not sell China — such as technology that allows the Iskander cruise missile to manoeuvre at extremely high speed, making it difficult to intercept. Moscow will also not supply Beijing with satellite systems to detect ballistic missile launches.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju

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