MOSCOW (Reuters) - Similarities between a new Chinese fighter jet and a prototype Russian plane have brought suggestions that Moscow may be quietly helping Beijing compete with the world’s military powers.
Experts say the fifth-generation J-20 fighter, which made its maiden flight in January during a visit of the U.S. defense secretary, could have its origins in the Mikoyan 1.44 stealth jet that never made it to the production line.
A highly placed source close to Russia’s defense industry said the similarities suggested Mikoyan technology had been passed into the hands of Chinese arms designers.
“It looks like they got access...to documents relating to the Mikoyan — the aircraft that the Ministry of Defense skipped over in its tender to create a stealth fighter,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said it was not clear whether such a transfer of technology had been legal. Analysts say Russia’s assistance to the Chinese may help Moscow keep tabs on the rising military power’s defense capabilities of its eastern neighbor.
Independent analyst Adil Mukashev, who specializes in ties between Russia and China, suggested there had been a financial transaction.
“China bought the technology for parts, including the tail of the Mikoyan, for money,” he said.
China’s Defense Ministry declined a request for comment. Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), which oversees production of the Mikoyan jets, denies any technology or design transfer took place with China.
Only the United States has an operational fifth-generation fighter, which is nearly impossible to track on radar. Russia is working to start serial production of its prototype craft in the next five to six years.
China’s creation of such a plane would put the country into an elite group of military powers, although analysts say it will take years to perfect the craft.
The source said Chinese officials had been invited to the plane’s first public display when Russia was in the early stages of creating a fighter jet to compete with the U.S. F-22.
Rival designer Sukhoi was eventually contracted to help build the fighter and the Mikoyan 1.44, which lacks the radar-evading engineering of the U.S. F-22, was passed over.
Russia, the world’s top energy producer, has fed China, the largest energy consumer, with natural gas and oil in its fast rise to become a global power. But it has been unable to keep up with China’s military spending, which was second only to the United States’ in 2010.
Relations between the two countries are cordial but, in a sign that the two sides are suspicious of each other, Moscow is boosting its military capabilities in Russia’s Far East to defend its position in resource-rich Siberia.
China, once a big buyer of Russian tanks, helicopters and jet fighters, has slowed its purchases from Moscow as its own production grew but military ties remain.
China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Huei, was quoted last year as saying defense cooperation with Russia was moving beyond the buying and selling of weapons.
China is also trying to boost its naval power and its first aircraft carrier had its maiden voyage this month. The re-fitted Soviet craft was bought from Ukraine.
“The Chinese aerospace industry is booming and developing rapidly,” said Mikhail Pogosyan, head of UAC.
“In the aerospace industry what matters is the experience you have — not only to start a project but to see it through,” he said on the sidelines of Russia’s premiere air show, MAKS.
(Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao in Beijing)
Editing by Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan