I’m sure that the Chinese just arrived independently at the idea of having a folding-wing version of the Su-27:
Russia is eyeing China following media reports that an unlicensed variant of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-borne multirole fighter has been developed. Sukhoi officials are “closely monitoring that situation but have not said any official position yet,” said Sukhoi spokesman Aleksey Poveshchenko.
Ever since Beijing announced plans earlier this year to build its first aircraft carrier, speculation has been rampant over how the People’s Liberation Army Navy would acquire carrier-borne fighters. Sukhoi’s Su-33, with its folding wings, is the only choice because of the U.S. and European arms embargo to China.
Russian officials, who say China is already illegally copying their Su-27SK fighter jet, have halted negotiations to sell the Su-33. Beijing has not confirmed that it is working on a clone of the Su-27SK – dubbed Flanker by NATO.
“China will not acknowledge to the Russians that these are copies,” said Andrei Chang, a China military analyst at Kanway Information Center. “They say it is an independent domestic production designed solely by themselves.”
China owns an Su-33 prototype, which it obtained from the Ukrainian Research Test and Flying Training Center at Nitka, Chang said.
There’s a lot going on here. For one, it indicates that China’s IP policy remains ad hoc; the PRC will respect IP rights when it is bribed sufficiently to do so, or when it fears retaliation. On this second point, it seems that the Chinese do not fear Russian retaliation, given that they have also been accused of stealing Russian submarine designs. I’m guessing that the Chinese anticipate that in the future purchasing advanced weapon systems from Russia will no longer be a preferred option, in no small part because the next generation of Chinese designs will be more capable than the next generation of Russian.
There are also some interesting IR theory puzzles here. By a standard crude realist account, the Chinese shouldn’t care a whit for Russian licensing rights. By a somewhat more sophisticated realist account, the Chinese leadership will abide by international intellectual property norms to the extent that such norms benefit China. In this account, the PRC would be willing to forego short term gains from IP defection in defense of the larger structure of international IP law if China benefitted sufficiently from that structure. I think that we’re moving in that direction; I suspect that the PRC will become a beneficiary of strict IP interpretation in the short to medium term, if it isn’t already.
In this case, I think you could argue that the Chinese simply don’t see much of a downside from violating Russian IP rights. First, Russia is not considered to be an ideal IP citizen, and so there’s less downside to violating Russian IP rights than to violating French or American. Chinese behavior towards Russia isn’t necessarily understood to be predictive of Chinese behavior towards anyone else. Second, apart from weapons Chinese trade with Russia doesn’t seem to heavily involve the kinds of goods that are dependent on a strict IP regime, although that could change as the mix of Chinese exports increases. Finally, most realists would argue that legal concerns would have the lowest weight in the security sphere; in a straight up cost-benefit calculation, paying the Russians a license fee for the Su-33 just doesn’t pay off, so to speak.
Two final thoughts; there are a myriad of reasons why the Chinese aren’t copying F/A-18s or Rafale’s, but I’m guessing that the PRC would be much more nervous about violating French or US law than Russian, even if they had the capability to build such aicraft. Second, in 10-15 years I suspect that the Chinese are going to become vigorous, assertive enforcers of defense related intellectual property, even as the unlicensed Su-33s start flying off the first Chinese aircraft carriers.