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China, Russia growing closer despite cross-border suspicion

BEIJING -- The Russian bear is set to supply more weapons to the Chinese dragon, and this trend, observers say, will continue going forward even though suspicions remain between both sides.

Chinese state media reported last week that China was buying 24 Russian fighter jets and four submarines, making it Beijing's first large-scale weapons technology purchase from Moscow in a decade.

Observers say the arms deal, which China hopes to ink by the end of the year, is further proof that Sino-Russian defense cooperation is on the uptick.

One key reason is warming bilateral ties, which hit a high with Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow on March 22. It was the first stop on his maiden foreign trip as China's top leader.

He and Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed their countries' ties as “the new type of relations between major powers” and a model for the world. Some 30 energy and other deals were inked.

“China wants to strengthen political ties with Russia, so it has to support Russia's defense industry by buying its military equipment,” defense expert Song Zhongping told The Straits Times.

Another reason, he said, is China's keenness in boosting its military might, in view of several territorial disputes with neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines.

That Beijing pushed for the arms deal, reportedly worth US$3.5 billion, could also reflect China's acknowledgement of “shortcomings with its home-grown defense technologies,” analysts were cited as saying in a Reuters report last week.

Also, Moscow is turning to Beijing for more business after reportedly losing some lucrative military contracts in India — the biggest buyer of Russian military hardware — to Western countries.

By selling its new advanced military equipment like the Su-35 jets to China, Russia is getting a free advertising campaign for new potential clients such as Vietnam and the Philippines, said Song.

Russian analysts estimate that China bought about US$26 billion worth of Russian arms and technology between 1992 and 2006.

Sales slowed after 2003 following a technology theft dispute involving a fighter jet prototype, but picked up in recent years, with the value of new contracts signed last year exceeding US$2.3 billion.

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