Globe with China in focus and a bandolier of machine gun ammo draped across it.

China has long been perceived as a “problem arms exporter,” meaning that it has historically supplied weapons to countrieess that are on the United Nation’s “naughty” list. These include such pariah or rogue states as North Korea and Iran. In particular, it sold weapons to both sides in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and it continued to do business with Pakistan after it was sanctioned by the UN for carrying out nuclear weapons tests. It has also provided arms to such unsavory actors as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.

Now, as a paper I co-authored with Michael Raska (a colleague at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore) points out, Chinese arms exports are increasingly being employed as an explicit tool of international relations. In particular, overseas arms sales are being weaponized in the growing strategic competition with the United States.

Arms export motivations

There are basically four major waves in the motivations behind Chinese arms exports: ideological (the 1950s and 1960s); geopolitical (the 1970s through to the early 1980s); commercial (the 1980s through to the 2000s); and competitive (present day). During the Maoist era (1949-1978), China supplied arms to communist states (Albania, North Vietnam, and North Korea), to anti-Western insurgencies (the Viet Cong and Indonesian communists), and newly independent African nations. This was matched by targeted arms sales to friendly countries like Pakistan and Thailand. Many of these arms deals were done at “friendship prices,” that is, sold at a discount.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Beijing began to realize that arms sales could be a lucrative source of hard currency

Beginning in the early 1980s, however, Beijing began to realize that arms sales could be a lucrative source of hard currency. China made millions selling to both Iran and Iraq, as well as supplying obsolete medium-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia.

As a result, China quickly became a player in the global arms business. For the past 20-plus years, it has continually been among the top five or six arms-exporting countries, vying with such major Western weapons exporters as Britain, France, and Germany.

According to data put out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Chinese arms exports rose by 195% between the periods 2004-2008 and 2009-13. During the periods 2014-18 Asia and Oceania accounted for 70% of Chinese arms exports, Africa 20%, and the Middle East 6.1%. SIPRI data for 2014-2018 shows China to be the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, with 5.2% of the global market (although several times in recent years it has reached the number three slot, after the United States and Russia).

Pakistan has typically been China’s biggest customer for weaponry, followed by Bangladesh and Algeria. However, more and more countries have been buying Chinese arms; during the period 2014-18, China exported arms to 53 countries, compared with 41 in 2009-13 and 32 in 2004-2008. In recent years, China was the single largest supplier to Africa, capturing nearly one-third of the continent’s overall arms market, drawing customers away Europe, Russia, and the United States.

Growing product line

Since the turn of the century, China’s defense industry has modernized to the extent that it is now able to offer an impressive array of armaments, including fourth-generation fighter jets, trainer jets, antiship cruise missiles, man-portable SAM systems, self-propelled and towed artillery, armored vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, large surface combatants, and  submarines. Many of these weapons systems are competitive with their Western counterparts.

Of special note, China has quite recently but also quite significantly become a key exporter of armed drones or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). According to Chinese sources, Beijing sold more than US$700 million worth of UCAVs to militaries in Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Moreover, Chinese drones have been “bloodied in battle,” greatly boosting their reputation. The UAE and Iraq have used Chinese drones to attack terrorist sites, while Nigeria has employed Chinese UCAVs against the Boko Haram Islamic extremist group.

Weaponizing arms exports

Admittedly, China remains a smallish arms exporter, compared to the United States, which dominates the global arms bazaar, typically capturing 35% to 40% of the market. Moreover, Beijing is still overwhelmingly dependent on sales to just a few countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. It also still relies on countries either too poor to buy Western armaments or who have been subjected to arms embargoes. Few big-spending arms importers – such as the oil-rich Gulf states – have ever been interested in Chinese arms (other than armed drones). Iran used to be a major consumer of Chinese arms, but it has not placed a new order with Beijing in several years.

Nevertheless, China’s growing, cumulative political, economic, and military rise is reshaping global as well as regional geopolitics, including strategic alliances and balances of power – and arms exports are a critical ingredient in this remaking. While Chinese arms exports may have had their beginnings in mostly economic rationales – such as profits and support for the domestic arms industry – increasingly overseas arms sales are being used as a tool to advance Beijing’s strategic interests. This is self-evident in the growing range of Chinese arms sales – especially to Africa and Latin America – and in Beijing’s readiness to sell its most advanced weapons systems with no political strings attached and generally at prices below those of Western competitors.

As such, arms exports will also increasingly figure in the growing strategic competition with the United States. The arms competition between these two countries – both in East Asia and increasingly globally as well – is synonymous with their emerging great-power rivalry. In this regard, China has a growing capability to shape the direction and character of this arms competition – not only through its military-technological development and diffusion of arms exports, but more importantly, through its strategic choices that influence the contours of alliances and military advantage in different geographic areas.

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