The People’s Republic of China (PRC) looks set to become an increasingly prominent global arms seller thanks to its improving defense industry. Given the problems that some past Chinese weapons transfers have caused, Beijing’s recent decision to strengthen its arms export controls is a welcome measure that could avert future problems.
Since the end of the Cold War, China has sold several billion dollars’ worth of weapons and ammunition each year to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It usually ranks among the top ten annual arms sellers, though lagging far behind Russia, the United States, and one or more European countries.
Pakistan has proven an especially important customer, purchasing fighter planes, warplanes, and other major weapons systems. Most of Beijing’s other defense sales, however, have involved sales of small arms and light weapons rather than the advanced conventional weapons systems sold by U.S, European, and Russian firms.
China’s arms exports probably do not yield much revenue in the context of the PRC’s overall foreign commerce. Even with the end of its Cold War subsidies, China typically charges less for its weapons than do Western and Russian exporters. But some defense companies consider arms sales an important means of expanding production lines and achieving better economies of scale. PRC policy makers probably also see these sales as enhancing Beijing’s ties with a range of countries that have votes in international bodies like the UN and that often have valuable natural resources.
The Chinese government insists that it adheres to rigorous arms export principles that conform to international law and UN Security Council resolutions. These standards include selling only defensive weapons that do not destabilize regional force balances or violate international weapons bans adopted by the Security Council. Chinese officials also maintain that, pursuant to Beijing’s policy of non-interference in recipients’ internal affairs, the PRC only provides arms to sovereign countries (i.e., not non-state actors such as terrorist groups).
Outside observers have noted the Chinese government’s increased restraint in selling items that could contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles. Transfers of these items were a recurring problem in Sino-American relations during the 1980s and 1990s.
Even so, some of China’s recent conventional arms sales have embarrassed the PRC government and caused tensions with other countries. For example, China’s sale of small arms to the government of Sudan, which then employed the weapons to kill civilians in the rebellious province of Darfur, led to criticisms that Beijing was effectively violating a UN Security Council ban on transferring weapons to the Darfur region. The PRC’s support for Khartoum gave rise to a short-lived campaign to boycott the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
In June 2008, dock workers in South Africa and other African countries refused to unload a delivery of ammunition, small arms, and light weapons from a Chinese ship intended for the Zimbabwean government. The ship eventually returned to China, though not before news of the incident focused unwanted attention on Beijing’s ties with Robert Mugabe’s discredited government.
Furthermore, Beijing’s relations with Washington and London suffered when these governments determined a few years ago that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan were using Chinese-made weapons against their troops. Although the guerrillas may have obtained some of these arms on the black market, others appear to have been weapons China sold to Iran.
Experts disagree over the extent to which Chinese officials were involved or even aware of these transfers to the Afghan and Iraqi insurgents. The PRC Foreign Ministry issued a statement insisting that the Chinese government never sold arms to “non-country entities or people,” a formulation that does not exclude re-transfers from Iran.
China experienced similar problems in the 2008-2009 Gaza Strip conflict. Hamas launched Chinese-made Grad-model Katyusha rockets at civilians in Israeli cities. These weapons contain metal balls that can tear through people and material up to 100 meters from the point of impact. Israeli analysts believe that Iran had imported the Grads from China and then transferred them to Hamas.
Shortly after the Libyan war began in February, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1970, which imposed an arms embargo on Libya. As a result, any entity that sells weapons to Muammar el-Qaddafi government, or even offers to do so, is violating international law. In voting for the resolution, the Chinese delegate stressed the need to minimize loss of life.
Yet, several months later, three Chinese state-owned companies tried to sell Libyan dictator weapons and ammunition worth at least $200 million. PRC officials deny that the government knew of the talks, which occurred in Beijing. They have also indicated that the Chinese government would never have approved of any actual weapons contracts or deliveries since such sales would have violated Chinese law. Nevertheless, Libya’s new leaders said they would hold the arms sales incident against China when deciding which foreign countries would receive new government contracts, potentially denying PRC firms opportunities to bid on future reconstruction and energy projects
These incidents are one reason why the United States and the European Union have retained embargos on weapons sales to China. The U.S. government also regularly sanctions PRC corporations for selling arms to Iran. Washington’s current concern is that China might sell Iran advanced air defense missiles now that Russia has cancelled its planned sale of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Tehran. The Russian government, already worried about the growing PRC competition in third-party arms markets, might also worry about Chinese weapons finding their way to the North Caucasus.
It is true that many U.S., Russian, and European arms sales have proven controversial, and that some of their companies have violated export control laws and international sanctions. Nonetheless, the recent Chinese government decision to strengthen oversight of China’s growing arms export industry, which probably should include measures to improve interagency decision making and ensure that informal networks do not circumvent legal requirements, is important for minimizing future damage to Chinese interests from wayward arms sales.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.