Ukraine war threatens China’s military tech plans

Beijing had relied on ‘partners’ in Kyiv for defense technology that Russia refused to export 

President Xi Jinping might secretly support “best friend” Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. But militarily it has been a high-tech disaster for China.

Drowned out by the rhetoric of the Beijing-Moscow “no limits” pact is the hard fact that Xi relied on partners in Kyiv to continue his modernization of the People’s Liberation Army.

Even pressure from the United States failed to sever China’s military trade links with Ukraine before Putin launched his bloody war in Eastern Europe.

“Ukraine has always been a good hunting ground for Chinese military technicians. There is a lot there, and it has been in some cases easier to get than getting it from Russia,” Vasily Kashin, a military analyst at HSE University in Moscow, said.

“The relationship as it was will be completely destroyed,” he pointed out as reported by the Reuters news agency.

Armed and dangerous:

  • China had been the largest importer of military technology from Ukraine.
  • Data released by the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has shown the scale of the arms trade. 
  • Beijing’s shopping list has included engines for aircraft, destroyers and tanks.
  • Major procurement programs have involved a nearly US$320 million deal for amphibious assault vehicles.
  • A further $380 million was spent on turbofan engines for Chinese JL-10 combat aircraft trainers.
  • China’s military has also purchased airframes of the carrier-capable Su-33 fighter jet.
  • Ukraine also partially built the hulk of the PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the  Liaoning.

There still may be some technology the Chinese are after, particularly aerospace and missile-related.

Siemon Wezeman, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Trading places: “China was very dependent on Ukrainian technology in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that has diminished, particularly as China has developed its own design and manufacturing capabilities,” Siemon Wezeman, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said.

Cutting edge: “There still may be some technology the Chinese are after, particularly aerospace and missile-related … and traditionally they [Ukraine] produce quality, it is cutting edge,” Wezeman told Reuters.

Big picture: China has rapidly developed its own military-industrial complex but still relies on Russia for key high-tech equipment. Even so, Ukraine managed to provide items that Moscow was reluctant to deliver.

Delve deeper: Comrade Xi’s ruling Communist Party government has refused to criticize Russia’s invasion. But it will now drive a hard bargain when it comes to military technology.

What was said: “You can change friends, not neighbors. China and Russia as neighboring countries have to get along,”  Zhang Hong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said as reported by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank. 

China Factor comment: Beijing is being forced to walk a geopolitical tightrope after underestimating the global reaction to the Ukraine war. Still, it is unlikely to dump its special relationship with Moscow.