Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov’s visit to China last week opened up a new avenue in military cooperation between the Caspian country and one of the world’s strongest powers.
Colonel-general Hasanov spent three days in Beijing, from April 27 to 29, where he met with high-ranking military officials, including the defense minister, the western theater commander, and the deputy chairman of the central military commission. While in country, he visited the headquarters of defense producers Chinese Poly Technologies Company and CTEC International Company to understand their production portfolios.
Analysts in Azerbaijan, including military expert Rashad Suleymanov, believe that Hasanov’s visit to China could signal that it may further become a military hardware supplier to the Caspian.
"China is exporting weapons and military equipment of various purposes to the countries in the region. Turkmenistan has established its military-defense infrastructure thanks to China and Kazakhstan is purchasing military products from this country,” Suleymanov told Azvision.az.
“Azerbaijani officials have recently recalled the purchase of Polonez Multiple Launch Rocket System of Belarus-China production,” Hasanov explained. “Polonez is built on Chinese M20 [short-range tactical missile] system. In addition, long-range missiles, anti-tank complexes, as well as radioelectronic systems of China may lure the rulers in Azerbaijan.”
“Chinese officials announced at the ADEX-2016 military exhibition in Baku that they discussed the possibilities of exporting radioelectronic facilities to Azerbaijan,” the minister said.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant published a story on April 18 that asserted that Azerbaijan may include the Polonez missile system into its arsenal sometime in 2018. The Belarussian government will launch later this year the first of 10 batches of Polonez complexes to Azerbaijan based on agreements that were reached during Hasanov’s visits to Belarus in 2017 and 2018, according to the newspaper.
The Polonez Multiple Launch Rocket System is a 300 mm rocket artillery system that is manufactured at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant in Belarus. The system comprises a launcher unit of eight rockets packaged in two four-rocket pods that are mounted on a MZKT-7930 heavy-duty carrier, known as the Astrolog.
Elkhan Shahinoglu, who leads the Atlas Research Center in Baku, says Azerbaijan’s growing interest in Chinese weapons is normal given China’s expanding military might in the world. A military deal with China would help alleviate Azerbaijan’s dependence on the Russian military and help diversify its foreign military partners.
“We have purchased too many weapons and military equipment from Russia. We should decrease our reliance on the Russian military and defense products,” Shahinoglu told Caspian News. “We should avoid reliance on one country.”
“The country owns a strong defense industry infrastructure, produces various weapons and military equipment. Russia will not be able to protest our military deals with China, as well as missile purchases from Belarus. Because China is not a Western country, but a strategic partner of Russia. The same for Belarus.”
Since 2010, Azerbaijan has purchased lots of military equipment from Russia, including 100 units of anti-tank missiles AT-14, two batteries of S-300 PMU2 surface-to-air defense missile system, 18 units of both the 2S19 152mm self-propelled howitzer and 2S31 Vena 120 mortar carrier tracked vehicle, according to a 2018 research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Russia also delivered an undisclosed number of BTR-82A 8x8 armored vehicle personnel carriers, 118 units of BMP-3 IFV Infantry Fighting Vehicle, 100 units of T-90S main battle tank, 18 units of TOS-1A Flamethrower System, and two SA-11 surface-to-air defense systems to Azerbaijani army during the same period.
Azerbaijan’s armament comes in the light of its ongoing conflict with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is both juridically and historically acknowledged as integral part of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region turned into a battlefield in 1992 after Armenia launched a military campaign against its eastern neighbor in an effort to grab land that was partially populated by ethnic Armenians alongside indigenous Azerbaijanis. The settlement of Armenians in territories of Azerbaijan, including in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, was carried out by the Russian Empire in the 19th century.
The full-scale war lasted three years and resulted in Armenia occupying Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts, all fully inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders. The conflict was never resolved – instead, the war ended in a ceasefire in 1994 – and the conflict continues to this day.
The military strength of Azerbaijan ranks 53 among 136 countries according to the 2018 Global Firepower rankings, making it the strongest in the South Caucasus region.
Azerbaijan’s military budget was increased by 3.7 percent over the last year, going from $1.56 billion in 2017 to $1.6 billion in 2018. The 2018 budget allocates $800 million in funding for the Armed Forces, $60 million for national security, and $740 million in other defense spending.
Military-political analyst Ramil Mamedov in Baku says Azerbaijan’s diplomatic relations with China since the 1990s have been growing.
“The interest of Chinese military and defense companies in Azerbaijan was unveiled at the ADEX-2016 military exhibition in Baku. The largest Chinese military-technological companies have demonstrated and presented their products to the defense industry market of Azerbaijan during that exhibition,” Mamedov said, according to Sherg.az.
The Chinese defense industry is producing a wide range of weapons and military equipment, from hand pistols, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers to machine guns, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft guns and main battle tanks. The CM-501G anti-tank missile is identified by Chinese sources as a national equivalent of the American NLOS-LS Netfires missile or the Israeli JUMPER missile.