China to build top-class Russian fighters

PHIL REEVES

Moscow

CHRISTOPHER BELLAMY

London

President Boris Yeltsin is preparing a fanfare announcement that a deal has been struck for the Chinese to build Russian-designed high-performance fighter jets which, experts say, would greatly boost China's air power.

Although the contract has been in the pipeline for several years, it is being concluded at a particularly sensitive time because of the friction between China and Taiwan, which has been buying hundreds of jets from the US and France.

According to sources in Moscow, Mr Yeltsin is likely to announce the completion of the sale during his visit to China next month, not least because his advisers believe that it would improve his re-election prospects by playing to anti-Western sentiments in Russia. It would also provide palpable evidence that Russia is carrying through its ambitions to forge closer relations with China and to boost arms exports.

The deal involves Russia's much-admired Su-27 fighter jets - known to Nato as "Flanker" - which are thought to appeal to the Chinese because of their long range. This would enable China to provide air cover over the approaches to Taiwan and the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea without refuelling in the air.

The acquisition of the new long-range aircraft, which can be used for air-to-air combat or for reconnaissance, is part of a deliberate strategy to extend China's ability to conduct operations beyond its borders. It is believed the planes will be based in Zhanjiang, in Guangdong province, at the southern extremity of China.

Equipped with AA-10 medium-range missiles, and able to identify hostile aircraft out to 150 miles and lock on to them at 115 miles, the Su-27s will offset the advantage Taiwan enjoys with its US-built fighters.

The Su-27 , developed during the 1970s and first flown in its present version in 1981, is one of the finest combat aircraft in the world, and has featured frequently at air shows.

"China's attempts to improve its own aerospace technology haven't done very well and they've had to go elsewhere", said Charles Bickers, aviation editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. "The Su-27s are the most capable aircraft the Russians have - or are prepared to sell. In that respect it's a significant step for the PLA [Chinese People's Liberation Army] air force."

The Chinese have been buying Su-27s in limited numbers since 1992, when they received 26. Recently, they received another 24. The latest deal concerns the $2bn (pounds 1.3bn) sale of a licence to build the jets on Chinese soil, with the help of Russian experts - an arrangement which has caused angry debate within the Russian military as it will provide China with the opportunity to develop similar aviation technology of its own.

The Russians fear that this may undermine the prospects of their own military aviation industry, which has been struggling to recover from the loss of eastern European clients after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

The commander-in-chief of Russia's Air Force, Pyotr Deinekin, announced last week that the contract had been completed, although the number of aircraft covered by the agreement was unclear.

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