The Politics of China’s Growing Arms Sales

China has been the fastest growing arms major arms exporter in the past decade. Will it continue?

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted China’s rise as a major arms exporter. The mainstream discovery of China’s growing weight in the international arms trade won’t surprise many close observers (or many Diplomat readers), but it’s nevertheless worthwhile to study the trends in some detail.

According to SIPRI, China is the fastest growing arms major arms exporter in the past decade. Also, Chinese arms exports have moved beyond small arms and into heavier equipment, such as aircraft and warships.

For countries seeking medium-range arms with no-strings-attached, Chinese equipment is a good option. But cornering the market on low-end, inexpensive options is difficult. Numerous firms have begun to chase the “practical-minded” defense dollar; countries which have clear defense needs and are less interested in high-profile, high-prestige defense acquisition.  In the aviation sphere, the Textron Scorpion light attack aircraft, the Saab Gripen, the KAI FA-50, and the Embraer Super Tucano fit this bill.  China’s JF-17 (built and sold in cooperation with Pakistan) represents a potential inroad into this market if reliability problems can be solved.

U.S. equipment, of course, has a different set of reliability issues; keeping equipment in operation often depends on maintaining good relations with the United States, which can appear mercurial to many countries with less-than-stellar human rights records. Indeed, even major NATO allies such as Turkey have learned that the relationship with the United States can be fraught with difficulty.

As the NYT article notes, however, in the short term, the greatest pressure may fall on Russian dealers, who have their own reliability issues on both the technical and political sides.  Moreover, arm sales competition surely won’t help Sino-Russian relations, especially as concerns persist about Chinese appropriation of Russian military technology.

In the medium-to-long term, China could make inroads into markets such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya, depending on how transitions in those states work out. Several of these states have, in the past, devoted tremendous resources to building up their militaries, and all (except for Egypt) have suffered dramatic setbacks in the last several years.  Undoubtedly, China will face significant competition from Russia and Europe in all these areas, and the United States is doing its best to lock-in a competitive advantage in Iraq and Afghanistan by managing the reconstruction of their respective security forces. Nevertheless, the environments that most of these states face remain dangerous, and the Chinese arms industry may have the opportunity to win lucrative deals to re-equip these states.

As I’ve argued before, the down-the-range story involves China’s interest in exporting elements of its anti-access system-of-systems, and China’s willingness to engage in politically-driven arms exports.  The Chinese arms industry is in market competition with those of Russia, Europe, and the United States, but China has yet to decide to use this industry as a tool of geopolitical competition.