Chinese Eye Russian Warplanes
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
China may buy Russian maritime aircraft that would allow it to project force into contested islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met in Beijing with China’s Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan in late April to discuss military and technical cooperation. No formal agreements were announced.
The Russian news service Kommersant reported April 27 that China is interested in buying 40 Kamov Ka-29 assault and transport helicopters, 20 Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters, and 15 Beriev Be-200 Altair multipurpose amphibious aircraft. The contract could be signed as early as the end of this year, the wire service said.
Moscow analyst Ruslan Pukhov judged the Kamov sale as “probable,” but said China is “not very enthusiastic about” buying Be-200s. Pukhov directs the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow.
Analysts said such aircraft would greatly improve China’s limited ability to project force.
“China continues to turn to Russia to acquire advanced weapons and systems for its military modernization, and particularly for power projection, which Beijing recognizes is a key weakness in its capabilities,” said Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow in the Asia International Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The attention to maritime lift and amphibious operations in particular must send a bit of a shudder to Japan and Taiwan given the obvious application to the East China Sea and cross-Strait disputes.”
The purchase of Ka-29s, Ka-31s and Be-200s “would significantly address current PLA naval weakness and be of special concern to countries with maritime border disputes with China, especially Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam,” said Rick Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Islands in the South China Sea are contested by China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. China and Japan both claim the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which occupy a strategic location in the East China Sea 170 kilometers northeast of Taiwan and 410 kilometers west of Okinawa.
“In the future, if oil is found in the disputed areas in the South China Sea, the purchased aircraft can also be used to support its territorial claim,” said Yann-huei Song, the executive editor of the Taiwan-based Chinese International and Transnational Law Review and a research fellow at Academia Sinica, Taiwan.
“Within these coming two years — that is, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics — if Taiwan decides to move closer to a semi-alliance with the United States or toward constitutional referendum to write a new constitution, the possibility of PRC’s attacking Taipin Island in the Spratlys and the Pratas Island cannot be ruled out.”
Song said the purchase would ratchet up tension between China and Japan in the East China Sea.
“The chance of war is bigger in the East China Sea than in the Taiwan Strait; there exists misjudgment between the Chinese and Japanese militaries,” he said. “In particular, if China decides to go ahead for full production of the natural gas in the disputed area. The [aircraft] will help promote China’s Navy and combat power in the disputed East China Sea.”
The Ka-29 is an armed assault and troop transport helicopter that can carry 16 troops from ships or fire on ground positions.
“The Ka-29 might constitute the first organic helicopters for the PLA Marines,” Fisher said. “This increases their flexibility for potential Taiwan operations and operations in the disputed East China Sea areas with Japan and in the South China Sea.”
The Ka-31 is a ship- or land-based coaxial helicopter that can find aircraft and ships with radar and transmit the tracking data automatically to command centers. India put its Ka-31s in operation in 2003 and 2004, and recently grounded the helicopters for technical difficulties. Indian officials said they found defects with the airframes, rotor blades, seat baskets, and rivets and fasteners.
The amphibious Be-200 is a 66-passenger aircraft that can take off from land or water, and carry 13,200 pounds some 1,300 miles at a top speed of 440 mph.
The Be-200 has the “potential to turn South China Sea island garrison duty, once one of the most foreboding PLA hardship posts, into a vacation posting,” Fisher said. “With the Be-200 the PLA can continually reman, replenish, and even facilitate new construction on its South China islands. This has the potential to increase tensions in that region.”
Song said the aircraft could serve a purpose beyond simple territorial claims.
“The aircraft might not be used to support its territorial claims in the South China Sea, but to protect its sea lines of communication [SLOC], and prevent the important shipping lines from being blocked by the United States; it might also be used to counter Taiwan’s move to cooperate with the United States informally and Taiwan’s decision to build an airstrip on Itu Aba [Taipin Island].
“In fact, Taiwan’s decision to build that airstrip is mainly under strategic consideration, that is, to cut the Chinese SLOC in the South China Sea.”
China Already Flies
Taiwan’s military is already facing China’s newest export of Russian-made Su-27 and Su-30 fighters in addition to a widening array of Chinese-made fighter and bomber aircraft.
Taiwan’s Air Force is beginning to look towards the next generation of fighter aircraft, with F-16s, F-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters under consideration.