Back in March 2012, it was rumored that China would purchase the Su-35 from Russia. Although such a move would be a big deal for China who would undoubtedly reverse engineer the aircraft, little has been heard since then. Having just now found the time to follow up with the issue, it appears in the following month, the proposed deal ran into some problems. Greg Waldron from Flight Global reported on the proposal in April:
Apparently the Russians want to sell China a large number of aircraft, while China would prefer just a handful. And so an impasse ensues.
“We have been promoting the Su-35 fighter on the Chinese market,” Rosoboronexport deputy chief Viktor Komardin is reported as saying. “However, China only wants to buy a limited number [of aircraft] whereas we want [to sell] a large consignment to make [the deal] economically viable.”
In this instance, how does one define ‘economically viable’? The cynical part of me suggests that China wants to buy a handful (hints of Su-33?) and then reverse engineer the aircraft, eventually producing a Chinese clone, a follow on fighter to the J-11. This is economically viable for China, but not exactly ideal for Russia.
On the other hand, Russia would greatly benefit from a big Su-35 production run for China, lowering the cost per unit across the board.
Though China appears to have dug its heels in, I will be very curious to see how this proposed sale moves forward. If Beijing feels confident enough in its indigenous capabilities, perhaps it will indeed give the Su-35 a miss.
Otherwise, perhaps Beijing will back off a bit, wait a sufficiently face-saving amount of time, and then eventually agree to buy a larger number of Su-35s with a significant portion produced in Russia. In this case it would get the aircraft and technology transfer it needs, but at a substantially higher price.
It is worth remembering that in 2010, before Beijing surprised everyone with the appearance of the supposedly ‘Fifth Generation’ J-20, an alleged Chinese spy was caught smuggling parts for the MiG-29 and Su-27 across the Russo-Chinese border. Another similar heist was attempted in 2009 at the same checkpoint.
Such incidents would appear to suggest that China would be very interested indeed in the secrets of the Su-35.