China Has Nothing to Gain From an Aerospace Alliance With Russia

China Has Nothing to Gain From an Aerospace Alliance With Russia

Will Russia become even closer with China? That might be the biggest long-term strategic concern for the West amid Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russia’s and China’s autocratic governments share an insular worldview—particularly in their desire to fence their statist national economies off from global economic and political forces. Pooling aerospace resources, requirements, and markets may sound like a logical step. After all, the two nations already have a major joint venture aircraft in the works, and aerospace is central to national security and economic growth. While China seeks greater aerospace independence from the West, Russia is now effectively cut off from relations with other world aerospace powers.

Yet an examination of the two countries’ aerospace relationship reveals two stark differences indicating that any kind of alliance between them would be difficult to execute and yield few benefits.

The first problem is that Russia is a declining aerospace power, while China is a rapidly rising one—and Beijing needs Moscow far less than it once did. While their aerospace relationship has been fraught in recent years—with disputes over exports and intellectual property (IP) theft—it is only poised to worsen in the near future.

According to military expenditure data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia’s defense budget was $67 billion in 2020, a significant decline from the Soviet Union’s $261 billion budget in 1989 (all adjusted in 2019 dollars). China’s defense budget, by contrast, rose from $20 billion in 1989 to $245 billion in 2020. While just part of these budgets went toward weapons and domestic industries, it’s safe to say that their domestic markets for military equipment followed very similar trajectories.

Russia’s defense exports have stayed roughly constant over the last few decades, but given increasing Western sanctions against Russian arms customers, and the generally poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine, it’s a reasonable bet that Russia’s aerospace export business will likely decline as the military’s reputation does. Meanwhile, China’s defense exports have been rising steadily, despite being of similar quality.

China’s dependence on imported Russian weapons and systems has also fallen markedly. According to SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Database, between 2000 and 2010 China imported $22.2 billion worth of Russian weapons. This fell to just $9.4 billion between 2011 and 2021.

That is a far cry from the Cold War era, when nearly all of China’s military aircraft fleet consisted of imported Soviet types, sometimes built locally. Then, starting in the 1980s, China increasingly developed its own designs, with heavy Soviet influence, such as the J-8 fighter, or unlicensed copies of Russian types, such as the J-11 (a copy of the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27), which Moscow wasn’t all too happy about. Today, Chinese military production is focused on mostly indigenous aircraft, such as the J-10 and J-20.

The last stage of this process was engines, which are one of the hardest aerospace technologies to replicate. But starting in the last decade, Chinese air force fighter jets increasingly used indigenous engines, rather than imported Russian models. One reason China needed to create its own combat engine, at enormous expense, was that Russia refused in 2016 to export more modern combat engines unless China resumed purchasing Russian fighters (which Beijing ended up doing reluctantly in the short term).

China’s J-11B fighter at first used Russian AL-31 engines but has now switched to an indigenous engine, the WS-10A Taihang, built by a subsidiary of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China. The WS-10 is also being used for China’s J-10 and J-20, which once relied on Russian engines.

China even claims to now build its own high-bypass turbofans, one of the most difficult engine technologies—or aerospace technologies of any kind—to replicate. Very few countries can build jet engines of any kind, and only three other countries (Britain, Russia, and the United States) can build their own high-bypass turbofans. These WS-20 engines, which are still in flight testing, will power its Y-20 military transport aircraft, which formerly used imported Soloviev D-30KP-2 turbofans.

Clearly, China no longer needs Russian help. In a remarkable reversal, Russia has reportedly asked China for weapons and other military assistance in its war in Ukraine (though it remains unclear whether China will respond with aviation support).

The decline of Russia’s civil aviation industry at home and abroad is even more stark. In 1990, Russia’s Tupolev Tu-154 was the single-most common jetliner in China’s commercial fleet. By 2020, according to the aviation analytics firm Cirium, there wasn’t a single Russian jetliner to be found among Chinese airlines.

Russia’s domestic market collapsed as well. Most tellingly, Russia’s jetliner fleet comprises around 800 Western-made aircraft, now subject to sanctions and cut off from spares and support. Given that Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, and their major suppliers have all stopped selling spares to Russia, even if President Vladimir Putin seizes all the jets he can grab, it’s just a matter of weeks or months before they stop flying. There is no Plan B Russian fleet—fewer than 20 Ilyushins and Tupolevs remain in Russian service (mostly for government work), and they’re generally unreliable, burn more fuel, and cost more to operate than their Western equivalents. Another 60 or so Sukhoi Superjet regional jets are available, but these depend on Western engines—and embargoed spare parts—and will soon be out of service due to lack of imported spares.

The second problem between the two countries is that their expectations for aerospace cooperation are completely misaligned. Given the serious decline in Russia as an aerospace market and aerospace producer, the only thing it has left to offer is IP. Russia is merely trying to monetize its once glorious past. China, a rising power with a much bigger market and an increasingly capable technology base, simply doesn’t feel the need to sign more joint ventures with Russia, especially as it has many such ventures with Western companies, such as the C919 jetliner avionics joint venture with GE Aviation. China’s joint ventures with Western companies are poised to be far more useful.

The CR929, the biggest and most important Chinese-Russian aerospace joint venture, illustrates the many problems in aerospace relations between the two countries. In May 2017, Beijing and Moscow announced their plans to build a new twin-aisle jetliner that would become a mainstream international commercial aircraft. The twinjet design, slated to go into production around 2030, is intended to carry 280 passengers on long-haul flights up to 7,500 miles, competing with Airbus’s A350-900 XWB and Boeing’s 787-9. Like those planes, the new CR929 will use advanced lightweight composite structures for about 50 percent of its airframe.

Yet this concept has been gestating for many years and has always revolved around a sale of Russian twin-aisle jetliner IP. In May 2012, Russia’s news service reported that “Moscow will provide the know-how and technology, while Beijing will be responsible for the cash.” This approach has not changed. The 2017 CR929 agreement called for the jet to be manufactured in Shanghai but the research and development center to be in Moscow. The knowledge base would remain in Russia; China would merely build it—and of course pay the bills.

Russia’s approach here is understandable. The Soviet Union was the only individual country other than the United States that developed and built a wide-body jetliner on its own. But Russia never did it well. The Ilyushin Il-86 and Il-96 twin-aisle quadjet series—the only Soviet/Russian wide-body jets—were poor performers with terrible sales, weak operating economics, and miserable reliability, and they quickly disappeared as Russia opened up. Just 104 Il-86s and about 30 Il-96s were delivered. Almost none remain in service.

Eventually, the CR929 joint venture will likely die when China realizes that Russia’s IP here is not worth the money and that China, unlike Russia, has the market and the resources to go it alone—whether it decides to use its indigenous engines and military know-how to develop such a plane itself or it potentially buys some parts from Western manufacturers.

This pattern has played out before in previous Russian aerospace joint ventures. In 2018, Russia’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft joint venture with India fell apart. This was hardly surprising since Russia demanded $7 billion for its Sukhoi fighter jet technology. That was on top of the money needed to actually build these planes in India, and New Delhi refused to pay.

China has even greater leverage than India due to the size of its market and its overall aerospace spending—and is unlikely to pay either. In fact, China’s flagrant disrespect for IP rights, particularly in aerospace, means it might find another way to take Russia’s technology without paying. In 2019, the Russian government claimed that China was guilty of more than 500 cases of unapproved copying of Russian weapons and defense equipment over the previous 17 years. (Beijing didn’t face any consequences.)

China’s illegal search for free aerospace IP extends to the United States, too, of course. The F-35 fighter, in particular, has been targeted by cyber-espionage, with some degree of success.

Beyond these two differences, there is one commonality between the Russian and Chinese aerospace industries: Russia and China are increasingly closed societies, and closed societies produce terrible aircraft. If aircraft designers can’t freely shop for systems and technologies worldwide, they’re saddled with domestically produced equipment that never had to become competitive against imports. And if journalists can’t write freely about a plane, well, that’s a sure sign to airlines that they shouldn’t buy that plane. Given this insular dynamic, any joint venture will merely reinforce what’s bad about the Russian and Chinese political and economic systems. This doesn’t mean a go-it-alone Chinese 929 would fail, but Beijing would only produce, at best, a serviceable jet for domestic airline use.

The closest thing so far to a successful Russian aerospace joint venture was with an open country, Italy, and it did not end well. SuperJet International, created between Sukhoi and the Italian multinational Leonardo, created a 95-seat regional jet. While 170 or so Superjets have been delivered since they arrived in 2011, the organization lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to, among other problems, misaligned goals, low sales, and incompatible production cultures. In 2017, Leonardo sold 41 percent of the joint venture to Sukhoi, leaving itself with just 10 percent. Sukhoi paid a nominal 1 euro for that 41 percent. Russia is now trying to reinvent the Superjet as a purely Russian aircraft.

Aerospace isn’t everything, of course. Just because China and Russia stand little chance of finding common ground with aviation or defense equipment doesn’t mean they won’t harmonize in other ways, such as in agriculture, banking, or telecommunications. But the issues and obstacles that would seem to prevent a Chinese-Russian aerospace alliance—the power imbalance between the two countries, a complete misalignment in expectations for joint ventures, and a divergence of views on IP—speak to enormous problems in any kind of partnership.

Finally, aerospace sits at the nexus of industry, technology, economy, and national security. If Russia and China can’t ally here, the signs for a broader entente aren’t good. Indeed, China—a rising power—has few good reasons, beyond a shared commitment to authoritarianism, to ally with a former superpower with a crumbling economy.

The post China Has Nothing to Gain From an Aerospace Alliance With Russia appeared first on Foreign Policy.

Last Update: Thu, 07 Apr 22 16:05:51