Despite Chinese Advances and Russian Allegations of IP Theft, Moscow Looking to Sell Fighter Jets to China

On March 16, the Director of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Dmitry Shugaev, said he was willing to facilitate the sale of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets to China, building upon a 2017 contract to sell 24 of the aircraft to China.  It is unclear whether his statement is in response to an expression of interest from Chinese counterparts.  Such a deal, however, may be complicated by allegations from Rostec in December 2019 that China had stolen intellectual property that allowed it to produce domestic facsimiles of other Sukhoi aircraft.

Russian efforts to generate military sales to the Chinese market are despite China’s continued success in developing domestic military manufacturing capabilities.  The introduction of the Chengdu J‑20 into the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in 2017 established China as one of only three countries (alongside the United States and Russia) to produce successfully a so-called “fifth-generation” fighter jet.  The project contributed to a broader effort by the Chinese defense industrial complex to reduce its reliance on Russia, which provided over $30 billion in arms exports to China between 2000 and 2018 (80% of all Chinese arms imports). A prominent recent example was a 2018 agreement to supply Chinese forces with Russia’s state-of-the-art S‑400 surface-to-air missile system.

Despite the increasing advancement of Chinese weapons technology, Chinese manufacturers have generally refrained from competing with Russian exporters to sell combat aircraft internationally.  One exception, however, has been the Chengdu J‑7, a license-built version of Russia’s Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21.