Foreign Policy Blogs

The Future Vendor

The Future Vendor

China used the HQ-7 “Crotale” outside of a stadium as protection during the 2008 Olympics.

While there are some that claim that China has been supplying some arms to Russia during its battle with Ukraine, the official position of China is to appear as a neutral party in the conflict. This is mostly to avoid sanctions or other actions against their economy by Western nations as China is heavily dependent on trade with the West. China, who has tried to expand their military equipment exports past a few of its neighbours, has now reached the point of being able to export advanced weapons systems. While some categories would do well in an export markets, others are tied to licensed or copied technology from Russia, Europe and the United States, which limits the ability to independently export the equipment.

Supplying both sides of the conflict might be advantageous for China. While China is openly seeking opportunities to be seen as a diplomatic force in the world over the last few months, favouring one side’s needs in the conflict in Ukraine may limit a critical narrative against China. With so many supply issues in NATO countries, China might do well if it can be shown to be assisting NATO allies with much needed shortages.

While Chinese munitions and systems may find their way to Russia, China would also be able to sell defensive systems to NATO and Ukraine without causing too much damage in its relationship with Russia. Offensive weapons may sever ties with one side or the other, but as the conflict escalates and becomes more desperate, more supplies would be requested and less restrictions would probably come in the medium term. This can be seen with the recent introduction of Cluster munitions by NATO into the conflict.

Regarding aircraft sales, China may not be able to depend on sales of its fighters and attack aircraft past sales to Russia. While there is little demand at the moment because Russia has not lost many aircraft, the nature of jets is often offensive and may sour relations with NATO. Licensing of sales of China’s aircraft like the JF-17 and J-10 is also hindered by the fact that they use the engines of the MIG-29 and SU-27 respectively. Any sales of these planes would need consent from the engine’s country of origin, which is Russia. While newer J-10s have a Chinese made engine, the export market would likely not involve NATO allies geared towards the battle in Ukraine as they have yet to send Western planes into the conflict.

The number of tanks being destroyed in the war in Ukraine has broken records several times over. With the Offensive taking place, many NATO tanks will also fall victim to the assault. China will likely end up with one of the largest reserves of semi-modern and modern main battle tanks in the world, and may be interested in selling their ZTZ-99 tanks to either side. The ZTZ-99 is as capable as a modernised T-72, the most well used tank in the field in Ukraine, but uses many Western components and is a mixture of NATO and Russian technology. While this offensive weapon would cause problems for China’s relations with the West and Russia, desperate sides may overlook politics in acquiring advanced weapons after a long period of conflict.

China has a similar heavy artillery focused strategy as Russia, and they produced Russian equivalents of many of the Soviet artillery systems. Russia’s 2S3 Akatsiya cannon was married to China’s Type 83, and their more modern PLZ05 shares much of the same cannon components as the Russian 2S19 MSTA. This means that much of the Soviet and Russian munitions work with both Chinese systems, along with older systems like their PLZ89, equivalent of the 2S1 Gvozdika seeing a lot of action being used by both side in Ukraine. Any side that would be able to obtain large quantities of Soviet munition capable artillery systems would gain a huge advantage. This is also why sales of such equipment with create a diplomatic rift with either side of the conflict, and would likely not be sold.

Air defense may be the best option for China to sell to either side in the conflict. Being mostly defensive weapons, systems like the PGZ95, tantamount to a very modern ZSU-23-4 Shilka, or the PGZ09, China’s own Gepard, may be used effectively against drones and lead to many innocent lives saved. Older missile systems like the HQ-7B, similar to a modernised Cold War era French Crotale, could deter attacks by Russian aircraft and may be able to shoot down some drones. A S-300 equivalent, the HQ-9, would be able to act as a long range air defence deterrent but would likely cost either side pilots if used. China’s HQ-17, a version of the Russian TOR-M1, would be a very capable mid range defender of any base or power plant threatened by missiles or planes. Such systems are usually paired with anti-air cannons like the PGZ95 and PGZ09 to defend from multiple threats.

Anti-air systems allow for the aggressors to choose whether or not they want to risk entering a specific zone of conflict and are used in many cases to deter attacks on civilians targets and infrastructure. While extremely dangerous if used improperly, it can be used to limit innocent casualties and de-escalate a conflict where honour and revenge fuels much of the responses from either side.

While the best outcome of the conflict is a hopeful de-escalation by both sides, there does not seem to be signs of this occurring in the near future. With shortages on both sides, there will likely be a mass move to add more weapons to the battlefield until distant achievements are met. China’s self interest may play into this global conflict in 2023, but the best move is clearly to not get involved. China depends on exported oil and gas as well as the international grain supply now being short coming out of Ukraine. If offensive weapons are found to be of Chinese origin, a big diplomatic rift may occur with China and NATO, or even Russia. China’s balancing act may include weapons sales, but it would be under the conditions of scarce supply by either side of the conflict and the sale of more defensive systems, especially if capable of protecting civilian targets.



Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration