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Analysis Ukraine Crisis Threatens China’s Discreet Pipeline in Military Technology

FILE PHOTO: Airshow China in Zhuhai
FILE PHOTO: Pilots operate a JL-10 Advance Trainer jet of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China, September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song/ file photo

March 3, 2022

By Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to jeopardize one of China’s most discreet but important strategic relationships in recent years: its use of Ukraine as a source of technology for China’s expanding military.

Military analysts and diplomats say that although the Ukraine-China link has come under increased pressure from the United States, the current conflict could largely derail a trade that has helped China’s military to thrive over the past two decades modernize.

Ukrainian frustration over Beijing’s growing ties with Moscow and uncertainty over the shape of the post-war economy and government could threaten the relationship, they say.

“It has always been a good hunting ground for Chinese military engineers. There’s a lot there, and in some cases it was easier to get than from Russia,” said Moscow-based Chinese military analyst Vasily Kashin of HSE University.

“The relationship as it was will be completely destroyed,” he said, noting the Ukrainian government’s anger at China’s diplomatic support for Russia amid other post-war uncertainties.

Aside from high-profile purchases of the partially built fuselage of one of the Soviet Union’s last aircraft carriers and the airframe of a Su-33 carrier-capable fighter jet, China has bought engines for its trainer aircraft, destroyers and tanks, and transport planes, according to arms transfers compiled by the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute were tracked.

Asia-based military attachés say, less visibly, that Ukraine has long been suspected of being a source of some command and control systems and other technology used in missiles. Ukrainian technicians have worked in China on a private basis.

That work is expected to continue even if the official relationship deteriorates or becomes difficult, they said.

“A traditional advantage for China in Ukraine is that the security situation is generally more volatile than in Russia, so it’s possible to do things unofficially,” an envoy said.

The Chinese Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The SIPRI data does not attribute value to every business listed, but based on figures provided over the past decade, China has spent at least between $70 million and $80 million annually.

Long-term programs include a $317-$319 million deal to provide amphibious assault vehicles and $380 million for turbofan engines for Chinese JL-10 fighter jet trainers, SIPRI data shows.

Another important deal was the sale of 30 gas turbines for 15 Type 052D destroyers – engines that China is now producing under license and may also have adapted and improved for more modern ships, envoys say.

Certainly, the technology acquired by China’s military technicians and engineers has enabled the growth of the country’s own indigenous design and manufacturing capabilities, making it less dependent on Ukraine than it used to be.

“China was very dependent on Ukrainian technology in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that has steadily diminished, particularly since China has developed its own design and manufacturing capabilities,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior arms transfer researcher at SIPRI.

“There might still be some technology that the Chinese are chasing, particularly in terms of aerospace and missiles… and traditionally they (Ukraine) produce quality, they’re cutting edge,” Wezeman told Reuters.

Russia remains China’s main source of military technology, but Ukraine has provided some things that Moscow is reluctant or slow to give, reflecting its Soviet-era role as a military shipbuilding and aerospace center.

SIPRI data shows significantly larger trade between Russia and China, which includes more advanced turbofan engines for its planes, radars and advanced surface-to-air, anti-ship and anti-tank missiles, as well as naval guns and transport aircraft.

But a habitually suspicious Moscow hasn’t always made the latest technology available to its big neighbor, the envoys say. For example, China’s South China Sea rival Vietnam has been able to source far more advanced kilo-diesel electric submarines from Russia over the past decade.

“My guess is that Ukraine has filled an important niche for China for a number of years as it may have been easier to get certain products and technologies that Russia might have been less keen on selling,” said Singapore-based strategic adviser Alexander Neill . “But China’s own domestic design and manufacturing capabilities have improved, and Ukraine has likely largely served its purpose.”

Any intensification of US involvement in post-war Ukraine could also complicate trade.

The pressure from Washington has already had an effect. Ukraine’s government confirmed last year that it would halt Chinese aerospace company Skyrizon’s takeover of local jet engine maker Motor Sich amid US concerns over forced technology transfers.

(Reporting by Greg Torode. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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Bobby Allyn

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