U.S. Navy Lt. Colin Zimmermann, signals to launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the “Golden Warriors” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87, from the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Casey Scoular)

Former US president Donald Trump’s bullying push to “buy American or else” when it comes to military arms sales may be working after all.

According to the latest statistics, the US remains the world’s largest arms exporter, increasing its global share of arms exports from 32% to 37% between 2011–15 and 2016–20.

The US supplied major arms to 96 states in 2016–20, far more than any other supplier, according to a report from the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. Meanwhile, Russia and China both saw their arms exports fall. 

Exports by China, the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter in 2016–20, decreased by 7.8% between 2011–15 and 2016–20. Chinese arms exports accounted for 5.2% of total arms exports in 2016–20.

Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria were the largest recipients of Chinese arms, according to SIPRI‘s report.

Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping told the South China Morning Post the decrease was caused by the Trump administration’s attempt to push its allies in the region to buy American weapons and reject Chinese and Russian arms by playing up a “China threat theory” under his Indo-Pacific strategy.

“Trump himself is a big arms dealer who deliberately tried to stir up tensions in the region, pushing more Asian countries to buy US-made weapons, a move to increase American arms exports,” Song told SCMP.

Arms exports by Russia — the second largest arms exporter — which accounted for 20% of all exports of major arms in 2016–20, dropped by 22% (to roughly the same level as in 2006–10).

Two Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet aircraft. Photo: iStock

The bulk — around 90% — of this decrease was attributable to a 53% fall in its arms exports to India.

“Russia substantially increased its arms transfers to China, Algeria and Egypt between 2011–15 and 2016–20, but this did not offset the large drop in its arms exports to India,” said Alexandra Kuimova, researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme.

“Although Russia has recently signed new large arms deals with several states and its exports will probably gradually increase again in the coming years, it faces strong competition from the USA in most regions.”

Almost half (47%) of US arms transfers went to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone accounted for 24% of total US arms exports.

The 15% increase in US arms exports between 2011–15 and 2016–20 further widened the gap between the USA and second largest arms exporter Russia.

Trump’s personal role underscored his determination to make the US, already dominant in the global weapons trade, an even bigger arms merchant to the world, despite concerns from human rights and arms control advocates, Reuters reported.

The “Buy American” initiative was aimed at allowing more countries to buy more and even bigger weapons. It also loosened US export rules on equipment ranging from fighter jets and drones to warships. 

The strategy even called for members of Trump’s cabinet to sometimes act as “closers” to help seal major arms deals, Reuters reported. 

While global transfers of major conventional arms remained at the same level between 2011–2015 and 2016–2020, the authors of the report noted that international arms sales remain close to the highest level since the end of the Cold War.

A US soldier aims a shoulder-launched Stinger missile in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

“It is too early to say whether the period of rapid growth in arms transfers of the past two decades is over. For example, the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic could see some countries reassessing their arms imports in the coming years.

“However, at the same time, even at the height of the pandemic in 2020, several countries signed large contracts for major arms,” SIPRI senior researcher Pieter D. Wezeman said.

The third and fourth largest exporters also experienced substantial growth.

France increased its exports of major arms by 44% and accounted for 8.2% of global arms exports in 2016–20. India, Egypt and Qatar together received 59% of French arms exports.

Germany, in fourth, increased its exports of major arms by 21 per cent between 2011–15 and 2016–20 and accounted for 5.5% of the global total. The top markets for German arms exports were South Korea, Algeria and Egypt.

The biggest growth in arms imports was seen in the Middle East. Middle Eastern states imported 25% more major arms in 2016–20 than they did in 2011–15.

This reflected regional strategic competition among several states in the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest arms importer—increased its arms imports by 61% and Qatar by 361%.

Asia and Oceania was the largest importing region for major arms, receiving 42% of global arms transfers in 2016–20. India, Australia, China, South Korea and Pakistan were the biggest importers in the region.

Although Taiwan’s arms imports in 2016–20 were lower than in 2011–15, it placed several large arms procurement orders with the US, including new F-16s.

A Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft (L) flies alongside a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force bomber south of Taiwan on May 11, 2018. Photo: Handout/Taiwan Defense/Ministry/AFP

“For many states in Asia and Oceania, a growing perception of China as a threat is the main driver for arms imports,” said Wezeman. “More large imports are planned, and several states in the region are also aiming to produce their own major arms.”

Arms imports by India decreased by 33% between 2011–15 and 2016–20. Russia was the most affected supplier, although India’s imports of US arms also fell, by 46%.

Other notable developments:

  • Arms exports by the UK dropped by 27% between 2011–15 and 2016–20. The UK accounted for 3.3% of total arms exports in 2016–20;
  • Israeli arms exports represented 3.0% of the global total in 2016–20 and were 59% higher than in 2011–15;
  • Arms exports by South Korea were 210% higher in 2016–20 than in 2011–15, giving it a 2.7% share of global arms exports;
  • In 2016–20 Russia supplied 30% of arms imports by countries in sub-Saharan Africa, China 20%, France 9.5% and the US 5.4%.

Sources: South China Morning Post, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Reuters