Chinese Clones of Russian Fighter Jets, A Warning for Today’s Tech Deals?
December 8, 2010 Leave a comment
The Wall Street Journal’s excellent new China reporter Jeremy Page – former Reuters, Times of London and veteran China hand and foreign correspondent – offers a glimpse of what the future may hold for technology companies now doing “indigenous innovation” technology deals in which they transfer technology to their China partner under the condition that the technology can only be used in China and not exported. Chinese fighter jets that have “assimilated” Russian technology that came in under similar deals are now hitting the international arms market.
I watched the birth of China’s military-industrial complex during the early 1990s Gulf War. The masses bicycling home from work would stop and block the street in front of the Beijing train station as they watched the evening news broadcast on the city’s first large outdoor TV screen. With open-mouthed awe, laobaixing watched US fighters launch “smart bombs” that steered their way down Bagdad smokestacks and into government buildings. That is when the Chinese leadership in Zhongnanhai just a few blocks away decided that advanced technology not hordes of peasant soldiers was the only way forward for warfare.
After decades of importing and reverse-engineering Russian arms, China has reached a tipping point: It now can produce many of its own advanced weapons—including high-tech fighter jets like the Su-27—and is on the verge of building an aircraft carrier. Not only have Chinese engineers cloned the prized Su-27’s avionics and radar but they are fitting it with the last piece in the technological puzzle, a Chinese jet engine. In the past two years, Beijing hasn’t placed a major order from Moscow.
Now, China is starting to export much of this weaponry, undercutting Russia in the developing world, and potentially altering the military balance in several of the world’s flash points. This epochal turnaround was palpable in the Russian pavilion at November’s Airshow China in the southern city of Zhuhai. Russia used to be the star of this show, wowing visitors with its “Russian Knights” aerobatic team, showing off fighters, helicopters and cargo planes, and sealing multibillion dollar deals on the sidelines.
This year, it didn’t bring a single real aircraft—only a handful of plastic miniatures, tended by a few dozen bored sales staff. China, by contrast, laid on its biggest commercial display of military technology—almost all based on Russian know-how. “We used to be the senior partner in this relationship—now we’re the junior one,” said Ruslan Pukhov, of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Public Advisory Council, a civilian advisory body to the military.
Russia’s predicament mirrors that of many foreign companies as China starts to compete in global markets with advanced trains, power-generating equipment and other civilian products based on technology obtained from the West……
Beijing’s breakthrough came in 1996, when it paid Russia $2.5 billion for a license to assemble another 200 Su-27s at the Shenyang Aircraft Company.
The agreement stipulated that the aircraft—to be called the J-11—would include imported Russian avionics, radars and engines and couldn’t be exported. But after building 105, China abruptly canceled the contract in 2004, claiming the aircraft no longer met its requirements, according to Russian officials and defense experts.
Three years later, Russia’s fears were confirmed when China unveiled its own version of the fighter jet—the J-11B—on state television.
“When the license was sold, everyone knew they would do this. It was just a risk that was taken,” said Vassily Kashin, a Russian expert on the Chinese military. “At that time it was a question of survival.”
The J-11B looked almost identical to the Su-27, but China said it was 90% indigenous and included more advanced Chinese avionics and radars. Only the engine was still Russian, China said. Now it is being fitted with a Chinese engine as well, according to Zhang Xinguo, deputy president of AVIC, which includes Shenyang Aircraft.
“You cannot say it’s just a copy,” he said. “Mobile phones all look similar. But technology is developing very quickly. Even if it looks the same, everything inside cannot be the same.”