China Quietly Supplying Arms To Central Asian Nations

In line with its increasingly sophisticated domestic arsenal, China’s arms exports have become much more technically competitive in the last 10 years; the 2015 U.S. Defense Department’s Annual Report on the PLA even stated that China’s ground systems in particular are globally competitive or nearly globally competitive.

With selling points of low cost and affordable service, lack of geopolitical strings and upgrade packages, China has become the world’s third largest arms exporter behind the US and Russia. With a series of recent contracting wins against Russian firms, it looks to expand its market share.

China has reportedly provided both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with sophisticated air defense systems, which would represent the largest Chinese military equipment deal thus far in Central Asia.

Reportedly, China has provided one battalion each to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan of the HQ-9 air defense system, as partial payment for natural gas that it imports from Central Asia. (Each battalion consists of eight launchers.)

The Turkmen Army fires a HQ-9 missile during military exercises. A recent purchase by Turkmenistan, the HQ-9 beat out its Russian counterpart, the S-300, to meet Turkmen long-range air defense needs.

In April 2016, Turkmen state TV showed footage of the Turkmen military firing its new FD-2000 long-range surface to air missile (SAM) during military maneuvers. The FD-2000, the export version of the HQ-9, is distinguished from its domestic sibling by its hexagonal missile canisters. The latest FD-2000 likely has similar performance to the HQ-9’s 200km range and 30km flight ceiling, with capability against both aircraft and ballistic missiles. Footage of the same exercise also showed that Turkmenistan has the medium-ranged HQ-12 SAM as well.

The Turkmenistan military’s new long-range is clearly the FD-2000, the export variant of the HQ-9, with its distinct hexagonal launch canisters.

While Turkmenistan’s military arsenal is still largely Soviet-era Russian weaponry, the major purchase of strategic Chinese air defense missiles despite the ubiquitous availability of similar Russian systems suggests that Turkmenistan is looking to diversify its defense purchases. Such a move could be driven by unease over Russian activities in Ukraine, as well as China becoming the largest customer of Turkmen natural gas. China’s increased economic clout in Central Asia is clearly giving it the ability to smooth over negative Russian reactions to a similar increase in Chinese security clout.

At a Kazakh Air Force open house, Kazakhstan’s Chinese made CH-4 UAVs make their debut to the public. While these drones aren’t carrying missiles now, their wing-mounted pylons show that they’ve got the “combat” part of UCAV down.

In an even more high profile victory, Kazakhstan has chosen to purchase Pterodactyl WJ-1 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Shown on Kazakh state television, the Pterodactyl was displayed during a Kazakh Air Force open house without weapons, but already equipped with two wing-mounted pylons for anti-tank missiles and small bombs. Built by the Chengdu Aviation Industries Group, the Pterodactyl can carry a payload of 200kg and a powerful camera turret. Given American export restrictions on armed UAVs, and Russia’s inability to produce such drones, China is the logical provider for Kazakhstan’s unmanned combat needs.

The Pterodactyl/WJ-1, seen here at the Zhuhai 2014 Arms Show, can carry over 200kg of anti-tank missiles, satellite-guided bombs, precision rockets and video-guided munitions. Very useful for hunting terrorists or other trouble makers.

Kazakhstan’s larger security strategy involves balancing Russian influence with other foreign countries, like America, China, South Korea and Turkey. In addition to massive Chinese investment, Astana and Beijing both share similar concerns over Islamist militancy, and a wariness over Russia’s use of “little green men” in the Ukrainian conflict.

The information on the deal is spotty: it comes from Chinese-language Canadian defense journal Kanwa Defense Review, and cites an anonymous Chinese defense industry source. “It is possible, even likely, but it is still unclear at which stage the deals are,” Vasily Kashin, a Russian military expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told The Bug Pit. “Both countries need long range [surface-to-air missile] systems to replace their S-200s which are becoming physically old and unsustainable. Both countries are well known for their careful balancing between Russia, China and the West, they are both fiercely independent from Russia. Besides, Chinese currently can provide very good financial terms for such a deal.”

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One suggestive fact: Uzbekistani website 12news.uz has reported the news, and though it cites the Chinese sources, it implies that they have credence. It notes that President Islam Karimov has said Uzbekistan needs to acquire “the newest weaponry and equipment, including air defense systems and helicopters, armored vehicles, artillery systems, and communications systems, the site wrote, and quoted Karimov: “Our highest priority remainsthe deepening of cooperation with defense structures of foreign governments, with many of which we have established and are widening mutually beneficial partnerships, resulting in annual plans of military and military-technical cooperation.” (Uzbekistan may have solved its armored vehicle needs with the 328 MRAPs it was just given by the United States.)

It’s worth noting that air defense has been one of Russia’s top priorities for military cooperation in Central Asia. In November, the Collective Security Treaty Organization “started to talk about practical steps” on creating a unified air defense system in Central Asia. The CSTO members in Central Asia are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; air defense cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia is fairly well developed, much less so with the two smaller countries.

It’s also worth noting that China has yet to export any HQ-9s; this is the same system that Turkey controversially agreed to buy, though that deal appears likely to fall through. So Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would be the first such customers. 

China’s growing influence in Central Asia has been unmistakeable, but thus far its military activities have remained a far lower priority than economic cooperation. Beijing has appeared not to want to antagonize Moscow, which likes to recognize a sort of military hegemony in the region. Is that changing?

“The Russian government may not be entirely happy, but probably cannot do anything about it,” Kashin said. “Central Asian countries started to diversify their military-technical cooperation long ago, and China is one of natural choices.” 

Although the Kanwa report said that the deal was completed in 2013, Kashin noted that Turkmenistan’s last military parade, in September, featured only old Russian air defense systems, so Turkmenistan may not have taken delivery of them yet. “So, maybe the actual delivery will happen this year and the HQ-9s will replace S-200s on positions near Turkmen and Uzbek capitals,” Kashin said. Stay tuned.

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