Long ago, back before the Sino-Soviet split, back when Leave it to Beaver ruled the airwaves, the Communists of China and the Communists of the Soviet Union were the best of friends. As besties, they shared their dreams, their aspirations, and lots of their weapons technology. But as China's peasant proletariat turned out to be even less advanced that then their Soviet brethren, pretty much all of the technology transfer went one way: from Moscow to Beijing.
Thus was born an amazing coincidence; for decades, absolutely every weapon produced by China happened to look very, very much like a cheap Soviet knock-off. This got so baked into the Chinese military, that the resemblance lasted long after the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China split apart.
Fast forward to the modern day. The once-mighty Soviet Union has fallen on hard times, and has fragmented into a motley collection of countries, enclaves, vassal states, and fiefdoms. As a result, the vast network of factories, technical expertise, and supply chains that once powered the Soviet military machine has disintegrated. Previously intertwined industries are now divorced, living in different countries. Entire supply chains vital to one national military are in countries completely out of the control of that military.
In some cases, old armament factories operated as if little had changed except for the drop in production volume. Russia was, until this year, the biggest single export market for Ukrainian defense manufacturers, just as Ukrainian imports were the single biggest share of Russian defense imports. For example, most of Russia's helicopters are powered by engines made by the Ukrainian company Motor Sich. Conversely, the biggest use of Motor Sich's engines has been in Russian helicopters.
But once fighting broke out between Ukraine and Russia — or more accurately, a few months after fighting broke out — the defense trade between the countries ground to a halt.
Will Russia bother rebooting its own production lines if it can get equivalent military parts from China?
Although China has grown in technological sophistication, a lot of the old standards and technologies have left their mark. Much of the equipment and parts still in production are compatible with Soviet-era standards, and China has close relationships with the defense industries of both Russia and Ukraine. But the rupture between the two countries — the engines powering the remnants of the Soviet military-industrial machine — has, as Jane's points out, put China in a very advantageous position.
First, Ukrainian and Russian manufacturers alike are eager to replace revenue lost from the end of their relationships with one another, and will be looking to sell to China instead. In fact, Ukrainian and Russian companies could find themselves in competition for business while their governments compete on the battlefield and in the international political arena. This competition means it's a buyer's market for China, and may give Beijing access to a lot more technology and design expertise at lower cost than was previously possible.
Second, disruption of both Russian and Ukrainian supply chains will open up opportunities for Chinese manufacturers who can fill these emergent needs. To replace shortfalls from the loss of Ukrainian production, Russia needs to reboot or set up their own production lines. But will Russia bother if it finds it can get equivalent parts from China?
Third, the existing and potential conflict between Russia and the West makes Russian arms more politically costly for many other countries. China can offer some higher-end capabilities to nations that want to preserve compatibility with existing Soviet-heritage gear, but not endure the international hassle of annoying current or potential Western partners. This substitution could pay dividends for China's arms trade in places like Africa.
The true military, economic, and political power of Ukraine, Russia, and China vary wildly. But they are much more closely matched on a military technology basis, particularly in mid-market technologies, where having the most bleeding-edge capability isn't vital.
At least in terms of the business of war, the Sino-Soviet split has come full circle. Instead of a Russia and Ukraine united under Soviet rule against China, Russia and Ukraine are increasingly at war with each other, while China can pick and choose the subsequent bargains at leisure.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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