Russian Weapons Sales Could Help China ‘Contest U.S. Air Superiority’

REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Sales of Russian weapons to China poses a serious threat to U.S. air power in Asia, a congressional commission reports.

Armed with advanced Russian weaponry, such as S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and Su-35 fighter jets, the Chinese military could “contest U.S. air superiority,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission asserts in a new report.

Four of 24 Su-35s were sent to China in December last year, fulfilling obligations set forth in a 2015 deal.

Russia informally banned the sale of advanced weaponry to China a little over a decade ago due to mounting concerns over the replication of Russian technology and divergent strategic interests; however, that ban appears to have been lifted as the bilateral relationship between the two powers grows stronger.

The Su-35 is Russia’s most advanced fighter jet, and it has been hesitant to sell its prized plane to China. Powerful countries typically do not sell off their top weapons systems to rising powerhouses with the ability to threaten strategic interests, but Russia is not just selling its Su-35. It is also sending S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to China. The SAM system is expected to arrive in 2018 in accordance with a 2014 agreement.

The acquisition of Russian Su-35s could “provide China with technology that could help accelerate the development of its own advanced fighters, and serve as a valuable training and learning platform before China fields its next-generation aircraft,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission argues.

Furthermore, S-400 SAM systems could “help China improve capital air defense and could assist the [People’s Liberation Army in achieving increased air superiority over Taiwan, … [posing] a challenge for Taiwan’s air assets in a potential cross-Strait conflict,” the report explains, adding that the deployment of S-400 SAMs could threaten “the air assets of U.S. allies or partners in a South China Sea or East China Sea contingency, and U.S. aircraft, should the United States decide to become involved in” a regional conflict.

Russia and China have been increasingly thrown together by geopolitical forces. U.S. pressure in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea have driven Moscow and Beijing into one another’s arms. U.S. plans to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system on South Korean soil, a move opposed by both Russia and China, reportedly for national security reasons, has also encouraged Chinese-Russian cooperation.

Russia and China “maintain a shared resistance to U.S. leadership in the Asia Pacific.”

“China and Russia appear to be moving toward a higher level of defense cooperation,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission notes. “The increased complexity and focus on joint operations of military exercises between the PLA and Russian Armed Forces help provide both sides with valuable experience in pursuing their defense objectives.”

The report further states that “the recently expanded geographic scope of Sino-Russian military exercises, along with a new focus on missile defense, reflects increasingly aligned security interests and suggests the two countries are both signaling their respective support for the other’s security priorities. Greater alignment between the two countries in the security realm could pose challenges to the United States, its allies, and partners.”

Policy differences and mutual distrust are expected to prevent China and Russia from forming any kind of defense agreement or formal alliance.

“Russian arms sales to China and military-technical cooperation could have significant consequences for the United States, challenging U.S. air superiority and posing problems for U.S., allied, and partner assets in the region,” the commission concludes.

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