BEIJING – Blocked from buying U.S. and European arms, Beijing has stocked its arsenal with Russian-made supersonic fighters and other high-tech weapons, and is investing in the development of its own cruise missiles.
That doesn’t leave much on Beijing’s wish list, said Robert Karniol, the Asia-Pacific editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly.
“The Chinese have been getting, largely from the Russians, pretty well everything that they’re interested in,” Karniol said.
Both the United States and the European Union (news – web sites) banned arms sales to China following its June 4, 1989, crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protesters. Now Europe is considering lifting its 16-year-old embargo, raising concerns about the threat to Asian security, especially to Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its territory.
Rep. Tom Lantos (news, bio, voting record), the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, has accused European leaders of greed and indifference to the safety of American troops, arguing that in a war over Taiwan, European-made weapons could be used against U.S. forces.
A key goal of China’s weapons modernization has been to back up threats to invade Taiwan, which split from the mainland in 1949. Beijing has threatened to attack if the island tries to make its de facto independence permanent.
The United States is Taiwan’s main arms supplier and could be drawn into any conflict with China.
Until recently, Taiwan was considered safe beyond the reach of Chinese guns across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. Its air force, equipped with U.S.-made fighters, was thought capable of stopping a Chinese attack mid-strait.
But China’s weapons purchases make clear its determination to erase that advantage.
Its acquisitions from Russia alone would equip an air force and navy for a mid-size country — scores of supersonic Su-27 fighters, destroyers, submarines and anti-ship missiles.
Flush with cash from its economic boom, China spent more than $13 billion on Russian weapons in the decade ending in 2003, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, known as SIPRI, which tracks international arms sales.
Chinese purchases have saved Russian arms makers from bankruptcy at a time when Moscow’s military rarely can afford warships and other big-ticket items.
Britain, Germany, France and other European governments are eager for a piece of that business.
But they could be disappointed.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in January that even if the embargo is lifted, Beijing had no plans for major purchases of European weapons.
“Lifting the embargo will certainly not lead to massive imports of weapons, because China adheres to a defensive principle in national defense,” said ministry spokesman Kong Quan.
Instead, Beijing is likely to turn to Europe only for relatively small sales of sophisticated equipment that China can’t make and Russia doesn’t sell, Karniol said.
“The Chinese would look to the Europeans not for fighter airplanes but for components that fit on fighters, such as radars, missiles or engines,” he said by phone from Bangkok.
Some European governments already have made small military sales to China, according to SIPRI.
Britain and France sold naval radar systems, the group says in its 2004 Yearbook. As late as 2002, France delivered missiles and Italy a radar system — both ordered before the ban was imposed.
And the growing diversity of suppliers is highlighted by the most controversial Chinese weapons deal in recent years — its attempt to buy an Israeli-made airborne radar system in 2000.
Israel called off the $2 billion sale of the Phalcon system under pressure from Washington, which worried about the possible threat to U.S. forces defending Taiwan.
China reportedly is considering buying a similar system from Russia while it also tries to develop its own.
“They may have a prototype operational,” Karniol said. “But the central question is whether they can produce a good one.”