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The End of History

Russia threatens to take China to court over a violation of intellectual property rights.

12:00 AM, May 13, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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J-11B_+_J-8F_2x (2).jpgThe J-11B fighter seen in the foreground is Chinese industry
copy of the Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-27. (Photo from AVIC I)

RUSSIA AND THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC of China are about to go head-to-head on issue of significant national security and strategic importance to both nations. Believe it or not, it is not about the placement of a gas pipeline, nuclear weapons development, or the rapidly rising price per barrel of Russian oil. What it concerns is the age-old Chinese penchant for making illegal copies of almost anything imaginable.

"You wouldn't steal a car!" is the warning that flashes across the screen almost every time you put a movie in your DVD player. What usually follows is a series of messages about the evils of pirating movies, including the obligatory warning from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation about how video piracy is punishable by up to 5 years in a federal penitentiary and/or $250,000 in fines.

One country where these warnings have had little or no effect is the People's Republic of China, no matter where you are in this vast country. As you move through various regions of the country one, the people look different, the food tastes different, the Putonghua (Mandarin) Chinese that is spoken in Beijing and other parts of northern and southwestern China is replaced by Guangdonghua (Standard Cantonese) or other local dialects.

What does not change in any city is that almost every DVD and CD shop has a secret room behind a hidden panel or bookcase that contains a mammoth selection of pirated films and music--all of which are supposedly illegal. The last such hideaway room I visited this past month was offering 10 DVDs for 100 Chinese Yuan (RMB), with an 11th disk thrown in for free, which works out to about $1.30 per disk. This may be one of the few places in the world where the US dollar still buys something. (I do not want to say which city, lest the local gendarmeries decide they need to make a symbolic crackdown on these entrepreneurs to create some positive pre-Olympic games publicity and take everyone's attention off the debacle of the torch relay and the recent exposure of a secret Chinese Navy submarine base.)

But, Hollywood and the trade associations that represent the famous entertainers trying to stamp out video and music pirating have comparatively little to complain about when you look at the situation that Russia's military aircraft industry finds itself in. As the Russian newspaper Pravda reports, "Chinese pirates have entered a new level of activity."

In the early 1980s and before the collapse of the USSR, Soviet aircraft industry turned out two extremely capable, twin-engined, twin-tailed fighter designs: The Mikoyan MiG-29 and the Sukhoi Su-27. The latter aircraft was considerably larger than the smaller and more nimble MiG. It was in the same weight class as the Boeing F-15, and like its US analogue it was designed to be a long-range interceptor that could give its operators the long reach needed by nations with a plethora of air space to defend.

In the early 1990s, the PRC was desperate for just such an airplane. Chinese industry had tried to produce one for years, but had seen its efforts at design innovation stalled for more than a decade. At the same time orders and funding to Russian industry from its own military had dropped to nothing. The only way the makers of Russian weapon systems were going to survive was from export sales to China, India, and other nations.

Several years after their first purchase of Su-27SK export variants, China signed an agreement with Russia's state arms export agency, Rosvooruzheniye, for the licensed production at the Shenyang Aircraft Works of 200 additional Su-27SKs, as well as subsequent orders of Su-30MKK two-seat, multirole versions of the aircraft. Russian industry breathed a sigh of relief as billions of Chinese dollars began to fill their coffers.

But, in 2004 China's military told Moscow that the airplanes it was licence-producing were no longer needed because--according to the Chinese military--"the combat performance of these aircraft is far too limited." The 200-aircraft production run was truncated at 95 units of the J-11, which was the designation given by Shenyang for the Su-27SKs assembled in China, with only 180 of the twin-engined aircraft's Saturn/Lyulka AL-31F jet engines delivered as well.