As Moscow grows reluctant to sell China its most advanced military technology, Beijing is using Ukraine as a backdoor to acquire what it wants
Chinese Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde (陳炳德) paid a “goodwill” visit to Ukraine earlier this month, the first such visit by a top Chinese military officer in a decade. Beyond all the usual talk of strengthening “strategic” bilateral ties, one thing that stood out was the calls for greater cooperation on military production.
While meeting Chen, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the visit showed the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) regarded Sino-Ukrainian relations as “one of their priorities.” As we shall see later, there’s a reason for that.
Among other sectors, Azarov called for deeper cooperation on aviation manufacturing, as well as on landing craft, hovercraft, large transport aircraft, tanks, air defense and radar, adding that he hoped analysis would be conducted for the implementation of a five-to-10-year bilateral cooperation plan.
Unsurprisingly, Chen said cooperation should indeed be deepened. No wonder, as China has long relied on Ukraine to access a variety of platforms and weapons systems denied it by Moscow. A source with a long history of watching the PLA Air Force and who spends a fair amount of time in the country every year told me recently that Ukraine served as a kind of arms bazaar for the Chinese. Two areas, aviation and naval technology, have seen increasing cooperation in recent years. This includes advanced aircraft engines, which remain problematic for Chinese manufacturers. In fact, US military analysts estimate that the engine bottleneck remains the principal problem preventing the deployment of China’s J-20 stealth aircraft.
While for the past decades Russia has been China’s primary source of weapons technology, both in terms of finished-product acquisitions and cooperation in manufacturing, in recent years Moscow has grown more reluctant to sell China its most advanced technology. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that Moscow, like the rest of the region, is growing wary of China’s rise. The second is that the Russian military is embarking on a modernization program of its own, and its manufactures can hardly produce enough devices to meet the requirements of the Russian armed forces, let alone build items for export (a third reason might have something to do with repeated theft of Russian technology by the Chinese, who then produce cheaper copies that compete directly against the Russian originals on the international arms market).
As a former member of the soviet bloc, Ukraine has been in a position to serve as a market for heritage military hardware, which China and others have benefited from. Given its proximity to Russia and longstanding ties in military production (not to mention transfers on the black market), the country is now an ideal alternative for China as it seeks to access the latest Russian technology. Chen’s visit was simply confirmation of that.