Russia and the USSR have a long history of weapons supplies to various Asian countries. The tsarist Russia provided small arms to Korea and China. In the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet Union delivered large amounts of weapons to China, both to the communist forces and Kuomintang. Because of its proximity to the USSR, the Mongolian People’s Republic was also a major recipient of weapons from the USSR. After the World War II, along with the continuation of supplies to communist China, the USSR began to supply arms to the DPRK, later to Indonesia and North Vietnam. Since 1961, active military-technical cooperation with India began, and prior to that there were contacts with Pakistan. In the 1970s, Laos and Kampuchea were added to the list of customers.
After the USSR collapse, the military technical cooperation (MTC) with China resumed (actually, it began to recover in the late 1980s), and after 1991 Russia intensified military cooperation with India. At the same time, there were breakthroughs to the markets which had previously been closed to the USSR: Malaysia and South Korea, as well as Bangladesh and Myanmar. A rather important event was the return of Russian weapons to the Indonesian market. In the 2000s, Thailand and the Philippines were added to the list of buyers of Russian weapons.
As for the situation in the 2010s, the following should be noted. Objective assessment of the Russian military-technical cooperation with the countries of Asia-Pacific is becoming more and more difficult every year due to the tendency to classify all information on the military-technical cooperation with Russia. Nevertheless, there are some leakages to the media, and some contracts with countries of the region are still made public.
Based on open data analysis, we can say that throughout the 2010s the list of top five largest buyers of Russian weapons in the region regularly included India, China and Vietnam. As for China, in the late 2000s – early 2010s major Chinese contracts were about to be completed, but the conclusion of new ones (first of all, for 24 Su-35 fighter jets and four regiments of S-400 air defense systems) changed this trend. In 2013, according to official data, China and the CIS countries accounted for 13% of Russian arms exports. In 2015, Asia-Pacific as a whole accounted for 42% of the Russian weapons supplies, while the Middle East and North Africa got 36%. In 2016, there were reports that the orders portfolio with China had reached $8 billion or 16% of the entire portfolio, while deliveries the same year reached $3 billion, or almost 20% of the total annual Russian arms exports.
In 2017, the share of Asia-Pacific in arms exports increased even more – up to 45%, which is apparently due to the growth of shipments under big contracts with China. There were also reports that last year India accounted for 16% of all Russian weapons export orders, and the order portfolio amounted $4 billion.
As for the particularities of Russia’s military-technical cooperation with the countries of the region, the following factors should be kept in mind:
• As a rule, the countries of the region were the launch customers for new Russian weapons (Su-30MKI, Su-35 fighters, project 11356 frigates, S-400 air defense systems).
• The MTC with Asia-Pacific presumes the widest range of financial instruments (buyer’s funds, Russian loans, barter, donations, use of national currencies).
• The countries of the region (Indonesia, India and China) were the first victims of the American CAATSA act regarding military-technical cooperation with Russia.
• Russia not only has to experience competition from traditional opponents (the military-industrial complex of the West, Israel and China), but also to face the growing capabilities of the military-industrial complex of Asia-Pacific.
• After 2014, the Asia-Pacific countries in fact became the only source of Russian military imports, primarily of components for platforms produced in Russia.