On January 3, China signed a contract, estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, to purchase two advanced warships from Russia. Delivery of the ships, expected within about four years, will double the number of Sovremennyy-class destroyers that China possesses.
China’s first purchase of two Sovremennyy-class destroyers several years ago received a lot of attention because the warships are equipped to fire the SS-N-22 “Sunburn” anti-ship missile. The Sunburn is a supersonic, sea-skimming missile that can be armed with a nuclear warhead, although China’s Sunburns are thought to carry conventional warheads. The Pentagon viewed delivery of the ships, which has taken place over the past two years, as a qualitative improvement for the Chinese navy but not as a significant change to the military balance in the Taiwan Strait.
Although discussions on China’s possible purchase of the first two destroyers began in 1994, according to an October 2000 report by the Congressional Research Service, China negotiated the deal after an incident in March 1996, when the United States responded to Chinese military exercises opposite Taiwan by sending two U.S. carrier battle groups to the region.
Last spring, the Bush administration agreed to supply Taiwan with four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers even though long-time Taiwan supporters in Congress were calling for the United States to provide more advanced Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system. The new deal between Russia and China could increase congressional pressure on President George W. Bush to authorize transfers of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to Taipei in the future.