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China turns to Russia for big-ticket military items

BEIJING—Reaching into its deepening pockets, China has gone shopping for new weapons in Russia and, to a lesser extent, in Israel and Ukraine.

Russia has been delivering an average of $2 billion a year worth of equipment to China since 2000, handing over fighter jets, missile systems, submarines and destroyers.

China accounts for 30 percent to 50 percent of Russia's weapons exports, keeping its arms industry healthy, and it has attempted to leverage that clout to extract new military technologies from Moscow.

"The Russians held the line at the beginning. But as they get deeper in with the Chinese, they are finding the Chinese pressing for the good stuff," said James Mulvenon, a specialist on the Chinese military at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, a Washington consultancy.

Two new Kilo-class fleet attack submarines are now piggy-backed on ships sailing from a St. Petersburg shipyard to China, joining four already delivered, Mulvenon said. The Kilo class is one of the most advanced and quietest diesel-battery submarines in the world, likely equipped with supersonic anti-ship missiles.

Like much of Russia's arms exports to China, "nothing is dumbed down," Mulvenon said.

Russian collaboration has allowed China to amass a fleet of fighter aircraft able to fly longer range in worse weather and carry more lethal weapons, totaling some 200 Russian Su-27 and Su-30 jet fighters and bombers. China is shopping now for Russian aerial refueling tankers and aircraft for surveillance and target detection, as well as strategic bombers.

Russia showed off the aircraft, as well as long-range TU-95MS and TU-23M3 bombers, during unprecedented joint Sino-Russian war games in late August near the Yellow Sea. Some 10,000 troops from both nations were deployed in the exercises.

"There is no better advertisement for our arms and military hardware than a real demonstration of their capabilities in the course of practical exercises," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said as the exercises unfolded.

China's navy already is equipped with several Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers, which Russian defense firms outfitted with sophisticated radar systems.

For its part, Ukraine has sold China gas turbine power plants used in destroyers and is in talks on offering heavy-transport aircraft and aerospace technology.

China's arms-buying relationship with Israel dates to the early 1980s. Israel began selling arms to Beijing in a bid to limit Chinese assistance to its foes in the Middle East.

"Israel does not sell any platforms, like aircraft or ships. It basically sells avionics, upgrading, (and) electronic surveillance," said P.R. Kumaraswamy, an expert on Israeli military industries at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

The relationship has proved thorny, straining Israel's relationship with Washington. U.S. officials first grew angry when Israel helped China develop its F-10 fighter jet, almost identical to the Israeli Lavi fighter, which was designed with more than $1 billion in U.S. aid.

In 2000, an angry White House thwarted Israel's plans to go through with a potential $1 billion deal to equip China with the Phalcon radar system.

A new crisis erupted this year in April. Washington grew angry that Israel appeared to be responding to a Chinese request to upgrade Israeli-made Harpy attack drones. The Harpy drones, first sold in 1997, can destroy enemy radar transmitters. The Pentagon subsequently announced restrictions on sharing information with Israel.

After months of wrangling, the Pentagon said Aug. 16 that Israel had pledged to consult more closely with Washington on military sales to China.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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