In a reversal of a decision made earlier this year, Moscow has agreed to sell 24 Sukhoi Su-35BM fighter aircraft to China for an estimated US$1.5 billion, a sale that will further shift the balance of power in the air over the Taiwan Strait.
Russia’s Rosoboronexport and the Chinese Ministry of National Defense are said to have reached a preliminary agreement, with details discussed during a meeting in Beijing on Wednesday between Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
Hu was accompanied by General Xu Qiliang (許其亮), who was appointed one of the two vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission during the 17th session of the seventh plenary conference earlier this month.
The 24 aircraft come equipped with the 117S engine designed by Russian firm NPO Saturn, the Russian business daily Vedomosti reported.
The contract is expected to be signed next year or in 2014, with delivery of the jets starting in 2015.
Beijing has yet to confirm the deal.
Russian media reported earlier this year that Moscow had decided against selling China the 48 so-called “fourth-plus-plus generation” Su-35s, valued at more than US$4 billion, after Beijing requested them last year. Analysts concluded at the time that Russia’s principal reason for not selling the advanced multirole aircraft was the risk of Chinese reverse engineering. Beijing had initially only requested four.
Relations were already strained after China canceled an order for 95 Su-27s last year after it launched the production of the J-11, which Russia alleged was a replica of the Su-27.
The spat led to Moscow’s decision not to sell carrier-based Su-33 aircraft to the Chinese navy, which then designed its own version, the J-15, based on a single Su-33 it obtained from Ukraine.
The Russian air force is expected to take delivery of its first Su-35s in 2015.
China’s rapid modernization of its air force also includes the development of two types of fifth-generation “stealth” aircraft, the J-20 and J-31. It occurs at a time when Taiwan’s air force readies to retire its aging F-5 and Mirage-2000 aircraft.
According to a recent report by the US Congressional Research Service, the number of combat aircraft in Taiwan’s air force will drop by 70 percent in 2020 if no new aircraft are acquired, and by 50 percent if Taiwan procures the 66 F-16C/Ds it has unsuccessfully been requesting from the US since 2006.