Russia‘s security service has revealed that it arrested a suspected Chinese spy who posed as a translator while seeking sensitive information on an anti-aircraft system.
The man, identified as Tun Sheniyun, was arrested on 28 October last year, the federal security service (FSB) said in a statement cited by RIA-Novosti news agency.
The alleged spy was acting “under the guise of a translator of official delegations”, the statement said.
He had “attempted to obtain technological and maintenance documents on the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system from Russian citizens for money”, it added. That information is a state secret, it said.
Prosecutors sent the case to court on Tuesday, the statement said. Tun faces charges of attempted espionage.
Last year, Russia delivered 15 S-300 systems to China, a popular Soviet-era arms export, as part of a deal signed several years earlier. Yet Beijing has recently turned to more modern systems.
Putin’s two-day visit to China next Tuesday will be his first foreign trip since he announced his planned return to the Russian presidency next year.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the centre for analysis of strategies and technologies, a defence thinktank in Moscow, said: “They [the Chinese] are trying to copy this system illegally. They’ve already copied a whole series of our weapons.
“They’re trying to clone the S-300, to serve their interests and also to export. As I understand it, it’s not all working out. They probably wanted extra documentation to better deal with this task of reverse engineering.”
A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) released this week warned that the Sino-Russian relationship was growing increasingly uneasy given China’s international rise.
“In the coming years, while relations will remain close at the diplomatic level, the two cornerstones of the partnership over the past two decades – military and energy co-operation – are crumbling,” the thinktank wrote. “As a result, Russia’s significance to China will continue to diminish.”
It said that while more than 90% of China’s major conventional weapons imports came from Russia between 1991 and 2010, the volume of imports had declined dramatically in the last five years.
In part, that reflected the development of its own arms industry and the fact that Russia could not meet some of the new demands of the People’s Liberation Army as it developed, said Dr Paul Holtom, director of the Sipri arms transfers programme and one of the report’s authors.
But it also reflected Russia’s diversified customer base, which allowed it to take a tougher negotiating stance with China, particularly given anxiety about how China would use its purchases.
“Russia is unwilling to provide China with advanced weapons and technology, primarily because it is concerned that China will copy Russian technology and compete with Russia on the international arms market,” said Holtom.
“The nature of the arms transfer relationship will increasingly be characterised by competition rather than co-operation.”
Maintenance and upgrades accounted for perhaps 10% of Russian arms transfers, meaning that Russians do not want to share related documents, he said.
But China also has concerns that some of the technology it is buying is not always up to scratch.
No one at the foreign ministry in Beijing could be reached for comment.
Earlier this year, Ukrainian authorities jailed a Russian man for six years, claiming he was stealing military secrets to further China’s aircraft carrier programme.
In the past two years, Russian customs officials have also accused two Chinese citizens of attempting to smuggle spare parts for Russian fighter jets across the border.