The confirmation last week that China has purchased between four and six battalions of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system has sparked alarmism in many circles, with experts stating that the new missile will allow China to strike aerial targets over major Indian cities, all over Taiwan, as well as within disputed areas in the East and South China Sea. But before we start calling the S-400 a “game changer,” a few comments are in order.
Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run agency in charge of export of defense articles, announced on April 13 that Moscow had agreed to sell China four to six S-400 battalions for the sum of approximately $3 billion. The confirmation ended years of speculation as to whether Russia would agree to sell the advanced air defense system to China, a “strategic partner” that on some occasions has bitten the hand that feeds it, advanced weaponry by reverse-engineering Russian products and producing copies—some intended for export—for a fraction of the price.
The contract was presumably signed in the last quarter of 2014, with delivery of the S-400 to be completed in 2017.
Soon after the announcement, security analysts started portraying the acquisition as a potential game changer. In an April 18 report, Defense News noted that “The 400-kilometer-range system will, for the first time, allow China to strike any aerial target on the island of Taiwan, in addition to reaching air targets as far as New Delhi, Calcutta, Hanoi and Seoul. The Yellow Sea and China’s new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea will also be protected. The system will permit China, if need be, to strike any air target within North Korea.”