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U.S. Sanctions Chinese Military for Buying Russian Fighter Jets and Missiles

September 21, 2018

China was just hit by what the U.S. says is collateral damage from its sanctions on Russia, but the penalties seem far stronger than that.

China's acquisition of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft and missiles for its Ministry of Defence triggered tough U.S. sanctions against China. Photo: Navneet Yadav, CC

According to the U.S. State Department in a statement, in December 2017 China acquired 10 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 combat aircraft. In 2018, China also received its first batch of associated S-400 missile equipment. According to the U.S., both acquisitions were made by the Equipment Development Department (EDD) within China’s Ministry of Defense.

The State Department just filed sanctions against EDD and that agency’s director, Li Shangfu.

According to the U.S. in its news release on the subject, the sanctions were called for under Section 231 of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA). According to the  U.S. statement, “Section 231 of CAATSA and today’s actions are not intended to undermine the military capabilities or combat readiness of any country, but rather to impose costs on Russia in response to its interference in the United States election process, its unacceptable behaviour in eastern Ukraine, and other malign activities.” It went on to say that these “actions further demonstrate the Department of State’s continuing commitment to fully implement CAATSA section 231, which has already deterred billions of dollars’ worth of potential arms exports from Russia.

According to the release, the new sanctions were imposed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the direction of Donald Trump and in consultation with Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnunchin.

The sanctions imposed against EDD and Li Shangfu block EDD from acquiring any foreign export licenses (under U.S. control). It will also lock out the ability to make any foreign exchange transactions in areas either under U.S. jurisdiction or using the U.S. financial system. It will also further “block” EDD and Li Shangfu’s property and interests that are within U.S. jurisdictions. Li Shangfu will also be prevented from securing a U.S. visa.

A U.S. spokesperson who briefed reporters on the matter but asked not to be named emphasized that the sanctions were intended to impact Russia only, and not China or its military. As executed, these sanctions do far more than that and punish China in significant ways.

There has been no outreach from either the U.S. to China, or the other way around, to attempt to mitigate what just happened. For many within China's leadership circles, it will likely appear to be a further escalation of a new "Cold War" between the U.S. and China.

This is just one of several cases where the U.S. is using its sanctions to punish entities other than the original intended country. It is in the process of readying sanctions and blockage of access to the U.S. dollar financial system worldwide for European countries (and others) who may try to continue to do business with Iran after the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) agreement multiple countries had approved to encourage Iran to halt nuclear weapons development.

China has demanded the sanctions be lifted immediately. There has been no comment from the United States in return.