The director general of Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main defense exporter, recently confirmed the existence of a contract to sell S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to China. Based on anonymous sources, the Russian media began reporting on the sale as early as November 2014. The contract itself had likely been signed even earlier. It is useful to keep this timeline in mind when estimating the probable date by which China will obtain the missile systems—most likely sometime in 2016. It will then take another few months to get the first S-400 divisions ready for combat and to conduct live-fire exercises to test their readiness.

Concurrently with this deal, China itself has been more and more actively promoting its own HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile systems in foreign markets. According to still unconfirmed reports, in addition to winning the tender for an air defense system in Turkey—which was subsequently annulled under strong pressure from the United States—China is also delivering HQ-9 complexes to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Such a state of affairs naturally gives rise to apprehensions that China will copy the Russian system and become a serious competitor for Russia in the market for long-range surface-to-air missile sales.

Pirated Air Defense?

There are a number of distortions and exaggerations in the discussion about Chinese copying of foreign weapons. According to a common misconception, the Chinese are capable of copying “almost anything” and establishing their own production at greatly reduced costs. This may be partly true for certain types of consumer products but not for sophisticated armaments and military technology.

The exaggerations about Chinese copying skills arise from the character of Russian-Chinese military collaboration, particularly from the excessive secrecy agreed at the insistence of the Chinese. China's development of systems that outwardly resemble Russian analogues is often too easily—and without fact-checking—attributed to copying. In reality, in many cases such development is the result of the legal purchasing of licenses or R&D commissioned from Russian military industrial enterprises. During the economic volatility of the 1990s and early 2000s, such commissions helped many Russian enterprises survive.

The Chinese HQ-9 complex, which many describe as the “Chinese S-300” due to the outward resemblance between many of its elements and Russian analogues, makes for a great example of this phenomenon. The real cause of its resemblance lies in the fact that the ground-based elements of the HQ-9 complex were developed in Russia for the Chinese as part of a commissioned R&D project. The rest of the complex is based on many years of Chinese experimentation with medium-range solid-fuel surface-to-air missiles, which date back to the 1970s. The complex also relies on materials similar to those used in the American Patriot PAC 2 complex, which were obtained by the Chinese through special channels.

There are a number of other such examples. Some joint projects of the 1990s have only recently come to light. They include, by all appearances, HQ-16 surface-to-air missile complexes, FC-1 fighter planes, the fighting compartments of WZ-502 infantry fighting vehicles and PLZ-05 self-propelled howitzers, PLL-05 120-mm self-propelled mortar systems, type 054A frigates, and many other types of armaments and military technology.

Of course, there are also more than a few cases of unlicensed copying. But in contrast with the legally acquired technologies, the Chinese cannot count on the pirated versions to yield quick successes. Certain armaments of European provenance that fell into the hands of the Chinese during the 1980s were put into mass production only in the 2000s, after many years of effort.

As a whole, Chinese industry is not known for its attentiveness toward foreign intellectual property rights. All high-tech companies that do business in China, regardless of the country where they are based or the economic sector to which they belong, have encountered this fact. German car manufacturers, French nuclear scientists, and Japanese machine-tool builders find themselves in the same position as Russian arms suppliers. Yet few of them consider it possible to abandon the Chinese market because of these challenges. The best way to maneuver such an environment is by thoroughly analyzing the potential risks associated with each project.

Potential Targets

It would be naïve to suppose that the Chinese can copy the S-400 systems within a short period; such a task would require many years of effort. Meanwhile, Almaz-Antey, the Russian producer of air defense systems, is already well on its way to developing the next-generation system (the S-500), which is expected to go into mass production within the next few years. Under such circumstances, a decision to cancel the sale of S-400s to China would merely eliminate a source of export profits—which are much needed at this time—and would sour the climate for the strategically important relations with China without providing any benefits in return.

The military-political consequences of the S-400 sale are no less interesting than the technological aspects of the project. Compared with its predecessor, the new missile system has a greater range at which it can identify targets and a greater maximum firing range with the use of its recently tested long-range missile. According to Russian military experts, the missile system can reach distances of up to 400 km. This range signifies a fundamental change in the rules of the game in Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, two potential hot spots where China is involved.

With a range of 400 km, the missile systems will be capable of controlling the entire air space above these regions from fighting positions on the mainland—the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Shandong, respectively. For Japan, the problem of defending the islands will become considerably more difficult. For Taiwan, the situation will begin to look hopeless from the military perspective—China will be able to shoot down Taiwan's fighter planes from secure positions on the mainland as soon as they take off from the ground.

For these reasons, the sale of this missile system to China has drawn intense attention from the United States and its allies in the Pacific. Although the deployment of S-400 systems in China will worsen the regional security situation for the Americans, the sale itself is not the result of the Ukraine crisis and the most recent developments in the conflict between Moscow and Washington. Negotiations about the sale began as far back as the early 2010s, long before the current crisis. One may suppose that the beginning of the “Second Cold War” merely accelerated the ongoing Russian-Chinese negotiations. A positive experience with the first shipment of missile systems will likely lead to additional Chinese purchases of S-400s from Russia. It could also precipitate increased collaboration between Russia and China on the development of other air defense systems.

Vassily Kashin is a fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and an expert on China's military-industrial complex.

This publication originally appeared in Russian.

  • Vassily Kashin