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China’s growing clout in the international arms trade

By Emanuel Skoog

China’s meteoric economic rise during the last couple of decades in conjunction with its large-scale ongoing military modernization programs have facilitated its emergence as a major actor on the international arms trade stage [1]. Prior to 2013 China imported more conventional weapons than it sold overseas, however, it is now the fifth largest arms supplier in the world – behind the U.S., Russia, France, and Germany [2]. The country’s arms exports increased by 38% between 2008-12 and 2013-17, it now also has the world’s second-largest defence budget after the U.S. [3].  

Since at least the early 1990s the U.S. has enjoyed a dominant global position in the international arms trade and this in despite of export restrictions that sporadically restrict the transfer of arms due to political and technological reasons [4]. The market position of the U.S. is dependent upon two factors, namely the technological superiority of its equipment and the political value in establishing a close defence relationship with the U.S. [5]. In historical terms China’s arms export strategy has been built and centred around exploiting the edges of these U.S. advantages. Firstly, China sells military equipment at considerably lower prices than the U.S. and secondly China sells to just about any country, something the U.S. does not [6]. However, China is moving in the direction of modernizing the relationship between its defence industrial base and technology sector with the overarching aim of leveraging the relationship between civilian and military technology. This is something the U.S. achieved during the Cold War enabling it to achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union [7]. If China can solve this issue it has the potential to compete with the U.S. not only on the battlefield, but also in the global arms market. Chinese arms used by traditional U.S. arms importing countries might not be as perilous as those in Chinese hands. However, they have the possibility to challenge a dominant U.S. market position in the international arms trade and having the potential to lead to additional tension between the countries [8].   

Increased spending on its domestic defence industry means that China is also gradually challenging the West when it comes to the technological sophistication of its weapons systems and it is moving from being a land-based military to becoming a naval-based one [9]. China is seeking to transform its staggering rate of economic growth into military power that is consistent with its desirable regional hegemonic position and part of this strategy includes China’s efforts to exports its arms [10]. Historically China used to rely on Russia for its arms. However, this trend is shifting and underscores China’s growing capability to domestically produce sophisticated arms, which in many cases has been supported by the successful reverse engineering of existing technologies [11]. In addition, the nature of its arms imports is also changing, whereas in the past the country used to purchase complete weapons systems, it is gradually procuring specific components that can then be outfitted on platforms designed and built domestically [12]. China exported arms to 48 countries during 2013-17, with Pakistan being its major customer followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar. In addition, it is making inroads into some of Russia’s traditional arms export markets [13]. Furthermore, both China and Russia are selling arms to countries the West does not want to sell to such as for instance Iran, Sudan and Venezuela [14]. Countries the West is partly also on a collision course with. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that sophisticated arms supplied by among others China will be used against the West in possible future conflicts raising the potential costs for the West to engage the countries militarily.

However, as China expands its global military footprint in conjunction with its growing share of the global arms trade it is also experiencing an upsurge in the trepidation felt among its neighbours among others India and Vietnam [15]. Leading to an unmistakable military build-up across Asia as a result, a trend that is probable to continue as China is growing more and more assertive aided by a more sophisticated and potent domestic arms industry.  

References

[1]. How dominant is China in the global arms trade?: https://chinapower.csis.org/china-global-arms-trade/
[2]. See note: 1
[3]. Which country dominates the global arms trade? : https://www.bbc.com/news/business-43873518
[4]. Can China Replace the U.S. as the World's Top Arms Dealer?: https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/can-china-replace-the-us-as-the-worlds-top-arms-dealer/
[5]. See note: 4
[6]. See note: 4
[7]. See note: 4
[8]. See note: 4
[9]. See note: 3
[10]. China arms exports continue to surge: https://www.ft.com/content/8fb5af60-d921-11e5-98fd-06d75973fe09
[11]. See note: 1 and China, Russia and the shifting landscape of arms sales: https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2017/china-russia-and-shifting-landscape-arms-sales
[12]. See note: 1
[13]. See note: 3
[14]. See note: 3
[15]. See note: 10