Trump administration imposes sanctions on China for buying Russian fighter jets and missiles

Experts say appearance of 'US bullying' likely to push countries closer together

Friday 21 September 2018 12:32
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China conducts successful hypersonic aircraft test flight

Donald Trump’s administration has slapped heavy sanctions on China’s military after it bought missiles and fighter jets from Russia.

The purchases breached a broad US sanctions law brought in to punish Moscow for its alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The US State Department announced it would immediately impose the sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD), the branch of the Chinese military responsible for weapons and equipment, and its director, Li Shangfu, for engaging in “significant transactions” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter.

The EDD and Mr Li will be blocked from applying for export licences and participating in the US financial system. In addition, both will be added to the Treasury Department’s list of entities with whom Americans are not allowed to conduct business.

The sanctions are in retaliation to China’s purchase of 10 Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, the State Department said.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that it wanted the penalties withdrawn, while Russia accused Washington of undermining “global stability”. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, called the sanctions “unfair competition” as they impacted on Sukhoi, the maker of the Su-35.

And he said Moscow was trying to lower its dependence on the US dollar. He added, according to the Interfax news agency: “We are already drawing conclusions, doing [everything] necessary not to depend on those countries that are acting that way with their international partners.”

The Kremlin said US sanctions harmed relations between Moscow and Washington, remarking that the penalties came so frequently that “one would trip up reacting to each new instance”.

Mr Trump’s administration also blacklisted an additional 33 people and entities associated with the Russian military and intelligence, adding them to a list under the 2017 law, known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

CAATSA also seeks to punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and involvement in Syria’s civil war. Doing significant business with anyone on the list can trigger sanctions like those imposed on China.

Some of those added to the list, which now contains 72 names, were indicted in connection with Russian interference in the 2016 US election, the official said.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Trump issued an executive order intended to facilitate implementation of the sanctions.

A federal special counsel, Robert Mueller, is leading a criminal investigation of Russian interference in the US election, and any possible cooperation with Trump’s presidential campaign.

Mr Trump has insisted there was no collusion with Russia. Moscow denies any effort to meddle in US politics.

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One US administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the sanctions imposed on the Chinese agency were aimed at Moscow, not Beijing or its military, despite an escalating trade war between the United States and China.

“The ultimate target of these sanctions is Russia. CAATSA sanctions in this context are not intended to undermine the defence capabilities of any particular country,” the official said. “They are instead aimed at imposing costs upon Russia in response to its malign activities.”

In Moscow, Russian member of parliament Franz Klintsevich said the sanctions would not affect the S-400 and SU-35 contracts.

“I am sure that these contracts will be executed in line with the schedule,” Mr Klintsevich was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency. “The possession of this military equipment is very important for China.”

Security analysts in Asia said the move appeared to be largely symbolic and would serve only to push Moscow and Beijing closer together.

“The imposition of US sanctions will have zero impact on Russian arms sales to China,” said Ian Storey, of Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

“Both countries are opposed to what they see as US bullying and these kind of actions will just push Beijing and Moscow even closer together,” he said, adding that Moscow needed Chinese money and Beijing wanted advanced military technology.

Collin Koh, a security analyst at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the sanctions would do little to counter the evolving research and development relationship between China and Russia.

China now relies less on large purchases from Russia than it has in the past, but Chinese defence industries were seeking expertise from Russia and ex-Soviet states to plug knowledge gaps, he said.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning training ship, is based on a Soviet Kuznetsov-class hull but Beijing has since developed its own, home-grown carrier. The Type 001A is currently undergoing trials.

The measures come as the Trump administration pursues a variety of strategies to clamp down on China and faces growing pressure to respond strongly to US intelligence agency reports that Russia continues to meddle in US politics.

Members of Congress, including many of Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans, who passed the sanctions bill nearly unanimously, have repeatedly called on the administration to take a harder line against Moscow.

Administration officials said they hoped the action against EDD would send a message to others considering buying the S-400.

US officials have been discussing the issue particularly with Nato ally Turkey, which wants to buy the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries.

Washington has expressed concern that Turkey’s planned deployment of the S-400s could pose a risk to the security of some US-made weapons and other technology used by Turkey, including the F-35 fighter jet.

US officials have warned that Turkey’s purchase of the system could contravene CAATSA.

“We hope that at least this step will send a signal of our seriousness and perhaps encourage others to think twice about their own engagement with the Russian defence and intelligence sectors,” another unnamed US official said.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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