US says China is supplying missile and drone engines to Russia

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The US has accused China of providing Russia with cruise missile and drone engines and machine tools for ballistic missiles, as it urges Europe to step up diplomatic and economic pressure on Beijing to stop the sales.

In disclosing previously classified intelligence, senior US officials said Chinese and Russian groups were working to jointly produce drones inside Russia. They said China had also supplied 90 per cent of chips imported by Russia last year which were being used to make tanks, missiles and aircraft.

The officials added China was also helping Russia to improve its satellite and other space-based capabilities to help prosecute its war in Ukraine, and Beijing was also providing satellite imagery.

Dennis Wilder, a former top China military analyst at the CIA, said the disclosure “far exceeds previous estimates and shows a concerted programme by China’s leaders” to help Moscow prosecute the war in Ukraine.

“Russia lost access to critical machine tools from Europe at the beginning of the conflict and China has moved to fill the gap,” said Wilder, now at Georgetown University.

Wilder said chips were essential for targeting systems and radars and China was also a world leader in drones for military and civilian purposes.

People familiar with the situation said the US believed European pressure would be critical to convince Beijing to stop exporting the materiel.

The US disclosures on Friday comes after officials including secretary of state Antony Blinken in recent weeks raised concerns with European capitals about China’s provision of military-related technology to Russia, and pushed allies for help.

In addition to rhetorical pressure, the US wants Europe to increase its use of economic tools. One person said Europe had sanctioned three Chinese groups since the invasion in comparison to more than 100 by Washington.

The person said Beijing had become increasingly confident that its support for Moscow would not jeopardise economic relations with Europe, and it would be concerned about any stepped up pressure given its economic problems. She said sanctions from European countries could have a very significant impact on changing the calculus in China.

The person said the US was also making clear to banks — in China and beyond — about the implications of facilitating trade payments from Russia to Chinese groups that help Moscow reconstitute its military.

The campaign to press European countries to increase pressure on China comes just two weeks after US President Joe Biden raised the issue in a phone call with China’s leader Xi Jinping. A second person said Washington had not seen any sign of Beijing pulling back since the call between the leaders.

Senior US officials said China had over two years built up support for Russia and Beijing believed it could avoid crossing any red lines by providing materiel that technically did not equate to “lethal” assistance.

But the Chinese support is helping Russia rebuild its defence industrial base and reduce the impact of western sanctions and export controls.

“These materials are filling critical gaps in Russia’s defence production cycle,” said one senior US official. “As a result, Russia is undertaking its most ambitious defence expansion since the Soviet era and on a faster timeline than we believed possible early on in this conflict.”

The officials said several Chinese groups — including Wuhan Global Sensor Technology, Wuhan Tongsheng Technology, and Hikvision — were providing optical components for use in Russian weapons systems, including tanks and armoured vehicles. They said Russia had also obtained military optics for weapons from iRay Technology and North China Research Institute of Electro-Optics.

Washington also accused Dalian Machine Tool Group, one of the biggest such companies in China, of providing tools to Russia.

The officials added Chinese entities were also “likely providing” Russia with nitrocellulose, which is used to make propellants for weapons. They said this had enabled Moscow to “rapidly” expand its ability to produce critical munitions, including artillery rounds.

Washington is hoping European countries will be more forceful with China in upcoming trips to Beijing.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz will have an opportunity to convey the message to Xi when he meets him on Tuesday during his second official trip to China. Ahead of the trip, one senior German official said Berlin was “concerned” Beijing was “delivering goods to Russia that support its war effort — dual-use technologies that Russia can use for military purposes”.

“It’s something we’re very concerned about,” he said. “We will make that clear in the talks.”

The Chinese embassy in the US said China had “not provided weaponry to any party” in the Ukraine conflict. 

“The normal trade between China and Russia should not be interfered or restricted. We urge the US side to refrain from disparaging and scapegoating the normal relationship between China and Russia,” said Liu Pengyu, the embassy spokesperson.

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