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Could China Stop Buying Weapons from Russia?

Su-35: Image
Image: Creative Commons.

According to multiple media reports, Russia may have lost upwards of 1,000 tanks in Ukraine – and if the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is to be believed the numbers could be significantly higher, with as many as 1,315 tanks destroyed between February 24 and May 26. In addition, the Ukrainian military is claiming it has destroyed some 617 artillery systems, 206 warplanes, and 170 helicopters.

All of that is bad news for Moscow, but it could impact Beijing as well – for both good and bad.

China is the second-largest weapons buyer of Russian military hardware after India. However, China has greatly increased its defense industrial base sector, so much so that Beijing is even poised to be a future exporter rather than an importer of military hardware.

Whereas China has long imported everything from jet propulsion systems to surface-to-air missiles to destroyers and even Kilo-class attack submarines, Beijing has actively developed its own versions. Chinese copies have even begun to surpass the originals, and as a result, China may not need to rely on Moscow to equip its military.

That could spell trouble for the Russian arms industry in the years to come.

“In every one of these cases, the Chinese have started to develop Chinese counterparts, Chinese competitors, and then essentially and slowly been reducing their dependencies,” Richard Bitzinger, a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told the South China Morning Post earlier this week. “The last place they have any dependencies is in jet engines and maybe some missile systems. That’s gonna start going away, too.”

Reversal of Roles

Even before Russian losses mounted, some experts had expected that China could reverse roles in the arms trade with Russia. In March, the Financial Times had reported that Moscow had requested military assistance from Beijing to maintain its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has long been the second-largest arms exporter after the United States, but in the future, it could become an importer.

Moscow has already requested supplies including surface-to-air missiles, drones, intelligence-related equipment, and armored and logistics vehicles. The fact that the Kremlin was requesting such items as logistics vehicles was a sign that its war in Ukraine wasn’t going as planned.

Russia had previously sourced some components for its weapons systems from Europe, but Moscow has largely sought to eliminate such reliance on foreign suppliers after it faced western sanctions in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea. Yet, there have been reports that Russia’s production of tanks and other vehicles had been halted at times in recent months due to a shortage of western parts, while Russia has had to source semiconductors from consumer electronics and even kitchen appliances including refrigerators and dishwashers for use in its tanks.

To make matters even worse, India, which has remained the largest customer of Russian military hardware, has long talked of diversifying the suppliers to its huge armed forces and has ramped up those efforts. New Delhi has identified 25.15 billion rupees ($324 million) worth of defense equipment it wanted domestic firms to make this year, and in the process avoid buying abroad – notably from Russia.

It isn’t just the tanks and other hardware that has been lost in Ukraine – the war could cost Moscow its two largest clients of military hardware as well.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.