China Is a Leading Proliferator of Small Arms
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China Is a Leading Proliferator of Small Arms

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A new report identifies China has one of the leading proliferators of small arms and light weapons (SALW) in the world today, and one that consistently flaunts international norms regarding the transparency of its SALW sales.

The report, which was published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), states that, “China has long been one of the world’s most significant exporters of small arms and light weapons (SALW). It is also among the least transparent.”

It goes to note that “At least 46 states imported military SALW from China during 2006–10,” with African countries accounting for the largest share of recipients of these weapons, followed by countries in Asia, the Middle East and, increasingly Latin America.

In many cases, the recipients of Chinese SALW are countries that cannot procure them elsewhere, a trend that dates back to the 1980s, according to SIPRI. The report does acknowledge that the perceived increase in Chinese SALW sales in recent years is partly attributable to a desire among recipient states to diversify their sources of supply.

Perhaps more troubling, the report adds: “There is significant evidence to indicate that armed non-state actors in South and South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are using SALW produced in China.” Much of the time, the non-state actors appear to have obtained these weapons by stealing or seizing them from government actors. However, “in many cases it appears that states have imported weapons from China and then re-transferred them to armed non-state actors.”

This latter occurrence is partly the result of China’s faulty domestic export regime. Indeed, one of the strengths of the SIPRI is its in-depth examination of the evolution in China’s arms transfer control systems. For example, the report recounts that:

“From being viewed as a serial proliferator of sensitive goods and technologies in the 1990s and early 2000s, China has undergone something of a paradigmatic shift and over the past 20 years has put in place all of the key elements of an effective transfer control system and has integrated itself into the main international agreements and regimes in this field.”

However, there are some arcane but important differences in China’s different transfer regimes. Most notably, with regards to dual-use technologies—those that have civilian as well as military (including WMD) purposes—private companies in China can export goods so long as they obtain the Chinese government’s approval.

By contrast, only state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are authorized to transfer conventional (including SALW) arms to foreign nations. According to SIPRI, “There are currently 11 state-owned enterprises (SOE) authorized to trade in conventional arms, of which 4 are authorized to export SALW and another 2 are authorized to export manportable air defense system (MANPADS).”

Paradoxically, the greater centralization within the Chinese government of conventional weapon transfers often leads to less robust controls on these items than is true of dual-use items. SIPRI notes that because all the conventional transfers take place within the Chinese government, Beijing has been far less forthcoming in sharing its data on these transfers than it is with dual-use items in which private companies are often the actual exporters.

Thus, the data international organizations and non-government organizations (NGOs) have on China’s SALW transfers often comes from the recipient nations. Of course, not all recipient nations choose to divulge this information.

The result is that even as China has been more forthcoming about acknowledging the dangers of SALW transfers in recent years, and ostensibly signed onto more international protocols regarding these transfers, it continues to resist transparency on its own SALW transfers and thus the full extent of its proliferation of small arms and light weapons remains unknown. As the report puts it:

“Taken together, UN Comtrade and SIPRI data identify at least 57 states that imported SALW or major conventional arms from China in the period 2006–10. Of these states, 36 reported to UN Comtrade on imports of military SALW from China, while SIPRI identified 37 importers of major conventional arms from China. Open source reports indicate that 10 of the states identified by SIPRI data also imported military SALW but did not report these imports to UN Comtrade.” 

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