By David Lague
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China is seeking renewed deliveries of advanced weapons from Russia with a $3.5 billion deal for fighters and submarines in the pipeline despite lingering resentment in Moscow over Chinese copying of its military technology.
China's state media reported this week that Moscow had agreed to supply 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighters and four Amur-class conventional submarines to the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which would make it the first major arms deal between the two nations in almost 10 years.
Russia has not yet confirmed the deal and military experts there said the Chinese announcement was premature because negotiations were continuing.
But the reports signal that Beijing wants to boost its military firepower as it locks horns with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea and contends with the U.S. military pivot to Asia.
The need to order some of Russia's most advanced military hardware also indicates that shortcomings remain with some of China's home-grown defense technologies, military analysts said.
"Currently the two sides are working on the relevant contracts and the results are likely to be produced by the end of the year," said Vassily Kashin, an expert on Russia's arms trade with China at Moscow's Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
The reports of the agreements and extensive coverage of the capabilities of the fighters and submarines on China's state television also appeared timed to enhance the domestic propaganda value of a visit to Moscow by President Xi Jinping last week, his first foreign trip since he formally took office earlier this month.
"This is all being done to pump up Xi's image," said Reuben Johnson, a Kiev-based military analyst and correspondent for Jane's Information Group. "If the deal had been ready, it would have been signed when Xi was in Russia."
Xi, as chairman of China's Central Military Commission, is also commander-in-chief of the PLA. He has carefully cultivated strong links with senior military commanders over the decades as he rose through the Communist Party hierarchy.
In a series of speeches and visits to military units since he was named Communist Party chief last November, Xi has sought to cast himself as a leader who will push for China's re-emergence as a great power with the military strength to defend its sovereignty and national interests.
Russia's defence minister, General Sergei Shoigu, welcomed Xi with full military honors and the Chinese head of state became the first foreign leader to inspect the Russian military command center in Moscow.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
However, military experts in Russia said the arms deal had not been raised while Xi was in Moscow.
Preliminary agreements between the two sides had been signed late last year when former president Hu Jintao was still in office, they said.
China relied heavily on arms imports from Russia in the early years of its ongoing military build up.
Russian analysts estimate that China took delivery of about $26 billion in weapons and technology between 1992 and 2006 in a trade that allowed the PLA to close a yawning gap between its largely obsolete inventory and modern Western hardware.
But, this business began to sour in the mid-1990s when Russia accused Chinese contractors of reverse engineering what was then Russia's front-line fighter, the Su-27.
Russia sold more than 280 fighters from the Su-27 family to the PLA. There are also more than 160 of the reverse engineered version, known as the J-11, in service with the Chinese military.
Chinese aviation industry officials deny copying the Su-27, saying the J-11 superficially resembles the Russian fighter but relies heavily on locally derived technology and software.
Anger over what the Russian defense industry regarded as outright intellectual property theft contributed to a sharp slowdown in weapons transfers by the middle of last decade with Moscow reluctant to risk selling its best hardware.
There were also fears in Moscow that arming the PLA could pose a long-term threat to Russia if there was a deterioration in ties between the two countries that share a 4,300-km (2,600-mile) -long border.
However in recent years, sales have picked up again with steady deliveries of equipment including jet aircraft engines, helicopters and missiles.
The value of new contracts signed last year exceeded $2.3 billion, Kashin said.
This is despite the growth of defense manufacturing in China that has accompanied its rise to be the world's second-largest economy. Authoritative Chinese military analysts acknowledge that Russia's defense industry still retains a substantial lead over its Chinese counterpart.
"Although China has stepped up the development of new stealth fighters and submarines in recent years, some of these technologies are not mature in key areas," said a commentary published this week in the Chinese language edition of the official Global Times newspaper.
Aviation industry experts say that China's failure to build high performance jet engines for its fighters is one of the major reasons for its desire to buy the Su-35 in a deal that will be worth at least $1.5 billion.
"Engines continue to be the Achilles heel of the Chinese aerospace industry," said Johnson, the Jane's correspondent.
The new Russian fighter has more advanced and powerful engines than the Su-27, which give it enhanced performance and maneuverability, experts say.
Some analysts suggest Chinese technicians want to adapt the Su-35 engine technology for use in the two stealth fighters now under development for the PLA.
But this time around, the Russian defense industry appears more confident that it can protect its intellectual property.
"It is understood that the Chinese will try to steal or copy any system they are given access to," said Kashin. "But, the amount of time they will need to do that might be very significant."
Kashin said one reason for China's earlier success in copying Russian weapons was that hardware, design data and technical experts remained in countries like Ukraine and Belarus after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
China was able to gain access to this knowhow while it reverse engineered the Su-27 and Su-33, a version of the Su-27 built for aircraft carrier operations.
"The new Russian systems cannot be found in the Ukraine or Belarus," Kashin said.
The prospective order for Amur-class submarines, estimated to be worth about $2 billion, also suggests that the PLA navy is dissatisfied with the latest versions of its home-grown Song and Yuan class conventional submarines.
Submarines are a top priority for the PLA as it attempts to build a force capable of dominating China's offshore waters and deterring the U.S. military from intervening in regional conflicts, analysts say.
Submarines would also be crucial in any territorial clash with Japan, which has a powerful navy and advanced anti-submarine warfare capability.
The PLA navy now has a fleet of more than 60, mostly conventional submarines, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Most Western analysts believe the most capable vessels in this fleet are 12, Russian-made Kilo class submarines delivered from the late 1990s.
The Amur class is regarded as a significant improvement on the Kilo class with improved stealth, batteries and weapons.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)