The Chinese arms industry is the world’s second-largest producer of munitions, a clear shift from a decade ago when China was a major arms importer, says a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It has overtaken Russia in arms production, a country that was once a major supplier of arms to China. Today three of the world’s top 10 arms companies are Chinese. Lack of transparency and state controlled media hype continues to confuse facts. The bulk of estimated $70-80 billion worth of Chinese munitions are consumed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
China is also becoming a significant exporter of arms around the world. China as per latest estimates has emerged as supplier of weapon platforms to over 50 countries. In general, between the period of 1998 and 2017, Chinese arms sales developed in volume by an amazing 211%, as per SIPRI. China is today launching home-designed aircraft carriers and conducting research in quantum-technology communications. China is the world’s fifth largest weapons exporter. China’s entry into weapon sales is of special concern since Beijing has not signed many arms control regulations, including the Arms Trade Treaty approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 2013. Its main customers are relatively poor countries in South and East Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In each case the sales are linked to lower costs, sometimes cheap loans, and political leveraging. The intention is to initially establish a foothold in the local defence market. Chinese Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or drones, are being extensively used in conflicts in both Libya and Yemen.
Chinese Arms Industry
In 2017, of the 20 largest companies in the SIPRI Top 100, 11 were based in the USA, 6 in Western Europe, and 3 in Russia. Interestingly four Chinese arms companies rank among the World’s top 20, with combined estimated arms sales totalling $54.1 billion. Three of the companies were ranked in the top 10. Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), is the country’s largest arms company. It mostly produces aircraft and avionics, with arms sales totalling $20.1 billion, and ranked sixth largest in the world. China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO), is eighth in the Top 100 with sales of $17.2 billion, is in fact the world’s largest producer of land systems. The other two were China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC),and China South Industries Group Corporation (CSGC). Chinese defense firms have started giving their American counterparts tough competition.
China Emerges as a Significant Arms Exporter
According to the SIPRI, China’s conventional arms sales surged from $645 million in 2008 to $1.04 billion in 2018. Over this period, the lion’s share of these exports – around 75 percent – went to Asia. An additional 20 percent flowed into Africa. Although China has established itself as a leading arms exporter, the overall value of its trade still pales in comparison to the United States, whose exports averaged over $9 billion annually during the last ten years. Pakistan is the destination for over 50 percent of Chinese exports. Defence exports to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Iran are also of concern to India.
Reverse Engineering Success
Chinese imports have reduced because of growing capability to produce weapons, which in many cases are through reverse engineering of existing foreign technology. The Shenyang J-11 fighter was adopted from the Russia Su-27K that Beijing first purchased in 1992. China’s HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles were inspired by Russia’s S-300 platform. In fact most Chinese weapon platforms seem to have link with some Western or Russian original design. Of late, China’s economic growth has also meant more spending on research and development.
Filling The Gap Left By USA
Beijing has also been quick to concentrate on emerging technologies. This has enabled it to fill the void left by other suppliers. The U.S. has put restrictions on sale of many high end equipments, including UAVs. China has made its UAVs available to countries such as the Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Moreover, in September 2019, Serbia announced that it will buy nine Wing Loong drones from China, marking the first time a European country has purchased Chinese UAVs. Chinese weapons have also found their way into various conflict zones.
Less Expensive But Cost-effective
Although Chinese arms are often less advanced than those sold by other countries, the US Department of Defense has noted that “Chinese arms are less expensive than those offered by the top international arms suppliers… but still have advanced capabilities.” The low-cost K-8 jet trainer is estimated to make up 80 percent of all jet trainer aircraft in Africa. Similarly the JF-17 may finally get sold to more countries.
Chinese Arms Exports – Latin America
China has historically supplied weapons to countries that are on the United Nation’s bad books. These include rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. China’s leap forward came when Venezuela’s President, the late Hugo Chavez, went to China to diversify arms imports because of an uncomfortable relationship with the United States. It bought the K-8 trainers and air search radars in 2008. They later bought transport aircraft, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery. China’s ability and willingness to supply modern military gear at highly competitive prices makes purchases from it very appealing. Great targets for China are countries that are abandoned by USA for political reasons, such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Chinese arms exports in Latin America are concentrated in Venezuela, which attracted 87.3 percent of Beijing’s regional weapons sales over the last decade. China is ready to offer financing as an extra incentive. Chinese conventional weapons make up just 3 percent of the combined North and South American arms import market, which is dominated by the United States (19 percent), Russia (13 percent), and Germany (12 percent).
Chinese Arms Exports – Africa
The increasing Chinese arms sales throughout Africa is in parallel to its ever-increasing numbers to peacekeepers deployed in Africa. China is now the largest single contributor of personnel to UN peacekeeping. It is also building infrastructure in Africa at knock-down prices. The Chinese-Pakistani made K-8 Karakorum jet trainer is now in service with Egypt, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Sudan. China claims with pride that K-8s comprise 80% of the jet trainer aircraft in Africa. The K-8 is particularly notable due to the ease with which it can be converted over to a light-attack role for counterinsurgency operations. China is actively working to strengthen its foothold in certain markets, such as Algeria. The sales include C-28A frigates. China has sold offshore patrol vessels and other complex naval vessels to nations, including Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, and Cameroon.
Chinese arms have been used during conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Somalia. In July 2014, China North Industries Corporation delivered 100 guided missile systems, over 9,000 automatic rifles, and 24 million rounds of ammunition to the South Sudanese government, whose actions have been widely criticized by the international community.
To complement its sales of advanced arms, China has already built a large maintenance base in Africa with more in development. A naval base in Djibouti will soon be joined by aircraft maintenance and training facilities in Tanzania and the Republic of Congo. 66% of African nations currently utilize arms made by China; from modest duplicates of small weapons to complex maritime vessels. Since 2008, countries in Africa collectively purchased around 20 percent ($3.2 billion) of China’s overall arms exports. Northern African countries are the primary destination of Chinese weapons, constituting 49 percent of Chinese exports to the continent. From 2010 to 2015, China’s arms sale expanded by 143%, making it the world’s third-biggest exporter of arms. China has taken the market once dominated by Soviet Union or Russia. In terms of trade value with Africa, Russia leads the pack at $14.6 billion in sales since 2008. The US tallied less than half of that at $5.6 billion, while China sold around $3.2 billion.
Chinese Arms Trade With North America and Europe
China’s major weapons sales in the region are limited. These were initially limited to small arms mostly procured by Canada, but in recent years Mexico has become a more significant market. Chinese weapons are increasingly finding their way to Mexican cartels. More than 99 percent of China’s total arms imports ($14.4 billion) come from Europe, while it exports are an insignificant $17 million of its own weapons. This trend is driven mostly by Russia, which supplies China with 68 percent of its foreign arms. France and Ukraine collectively supply an additional 20 percent of these imports. Aircraft engines are the main import. China has not yet been successful in producing aircraft engines. Between 2012 and 2019, China purchased over 420 aircraft engines from Russia, and just 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft. Ukraine also provides China with propulsion systems. In 2011, Beijing acquired 250 Ukrainian turbofans for trainer and combat aircraft, along with 50 diesel-powered tank engines and three refurbished IL-78 air-refueling planes. A sizable portion of China’s orders from France are also for engines. China has sourced French-built diesel engines, such as the 16PC2.5 and 12PA6, for outfitting its naval vessels. There are indications that China has acquired helicopter engines from France. Russian arms sales to China which averaged $2.6 billion through the 2000s, reaching a peak of $3.2 billion in 2005. This figure dropped significantly, averaging $816 million between 2010 and 2018. As a result, China’s share of Russian arms exports has declined from 47.7 percent of total sales in 2006 to 13.7 percent in 2018.
China Regulating Defence Exports
In June 2017, China published a draft of the Export Control Law, which, if enacted, will update existing legislation and establish a comprehensive export control regime. Additionally, in September 2019, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that China has initiated the domestic legal procedures to join the Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates the international trade in conventional arms.
Arms Sales in Asia
82.8 percent of Chinese arms were sold to countries across Asia. 61.3 percent of China’s conventional weapons sales since 2008 have been to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Chinese arms sales across South and Southeast Asia grew from $386 million in 2008 to $1.3 billion in 2016, though fell to $759 million in 2018. Notwithstanding, US exported $13.8 billion worth of conventional weapons to the same region in same period.
Close military ties have paved the way for China to supply Pakistan with more arms than any other country. These exchanges are often tied to political objectives. Due to growing cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad sales surged from $250 million in 2008 to over $758 million in 2009. Since 2009, sales to Pakistan have averaged $584 million. The co-developed JF-17 aircraft and China’s ongoing construction of the Type 054AP class warship for the Pakistani Navy, are significant.
Between 2008 and 2018, China sold $1.93 billion of weapons to Bangladesh. This constitutes 71.8 percent of Bangladesh’s military acquisitions over this period, making China the biggest supplier of arms to Dhaka. China supports these procurements by offering generous loans. Bangladesh’s entire tank fleet is of Chinese origin although 44 of these tanks were supplied through Pakistan. Similarly, small arms (16000 rifles), artillery and air defence weapons are sourced from China. Again a reasonable number of naval equipment, including its submarines are sourced from China. Discounted acquisitions included the 2013 transfer of two used Type-035G Ming-class submarines for Bangladesh for just over $100 million each. Since 2006, China has also supplied Bangladesh with the majority of its small arms, totaling over 16,000 rifles and 4,100 pistols.
Myanmar is the third largest market for Chinese arms exports in Asia. Since the easing of sanctions against Myanmar in the early 2010s, it has ramped up its acquisition of foreign arms. Since 2013, Myanmar has imported $720 million in conventional weapons from China. Major equipment includes an assortment of Chinese origin small weapons, tanks, artillery pieces and air defence guns. Lately it has acquired 17 JF-17 Chinese origin aircraft from Pakistan along with 12 Rainbow UAVs, two Type 43 frigates, and 76 Type-92 armored vehicles.
Sri Lanka operates Chinese tanks, armoured personal carriers (APC), artillery and air defence equipment for its Army. Its Navy operates a frigate and Shanghai class naval vessels. Its air force still operates old vintage Chinese origin combat and trainer aircraft. Currently, Nepal operates limited Chinese origin military equipment comprising a few APCs and rifles. But increasing proximity to China may entail induction of a fair share of weapons and equipment in future.
China’s Modus Operandi for Arms Sales to India’s Neighbours
Growing Chinese influence in the South Asia region could pose a challenge for India. China has reportedly committed around $100 billion in the economies of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. China is now the largest overseas investor in the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Chinese investment is concentrated in hard infrastructure related to power, roads, railways, bridges, ports and airports. Beijing has taken stakes in the Dhaka and Karachi stock exchanges and cultivated trade in yuan between China and Pakistan. China is accused of extending excessive credit with the intention of extracting economic or political concessions when countries cannot honour their debts particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), could be a strategic disadvantage for India.
Such fears were amplified after Sri Lanka had to lease out its Hambantota Port to China for 99 years, after being unable to service its debt. Similarly Pakistan has leased the Gwadar port to China. Strategic experts warn of a Chinese hand behind the strain in India-Nepal ties. Several South Asian countries seem enamored by Chinese “generosity”, which India is unable to match. By 2018, China’s total trade with Maldives slightly exceeded that of India. China’s trade with Bangladesh is now about twice that of India. China’s trade with Nepal and Sri Lanka still lags India’s trade with those countries but the gap has shrunk. Beijing is helping strengthen the navies of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka to enhance its footprint in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Other than Pakistan who is leaning on China as a low-cost option to neutralise more powerful India, most other countries are learning to play India and China against each other which gives them greater leverage.
Chinese Arms In Pakistan Inventory
Pakistan Army’s almost entire armoured fleet comprises of Al Khalid, Al Zarar, T-85 and T-69 series of Chinese manufactured tanks. Pakistan Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) has set up a production line in collaboration with China North Industries Corporation (Norinco) to manufacture the Al Khalid tank which has also been exported to Bangladesh. The artillery weapons with Pakistan Army include towed 122 mm howitzer (Norinco), 130 Type 59 guns which are supported by 122 mm MBRL and A100 MLRS 300 mm rockets, all made in China. The Pakistan Air Defence artillery has deployed Chinese LY-80 Low to Medium Altitude Air Defence System (LOMADS), FM 90 and FN 6 MANPAD missile system besides 12.7 and 14.5 mm Air Defence guns.
China started supplying PAF F-6 aircraft (air defence version of MiG-19) in 1965. 253 F-6 aircraft were finally supplied. A squadron of Harbin H-5, a Chinese version of Russian Illyshin IL-28 was formed in early 70s. China helped establish Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra in 1973. In mid 1980s PAF received 55 A-5Cs (Chinese MiG-19 ground attack variants) and 186 Chengdu F-7s (Chinese MiG-21). After USA froze F-16 deliveries as a result of Pressler amendment, 1990, Pakistan went whole hog to China for all its aerospace needs. In 2007, as a part of a joint-venture project, China rolled-out a ‘designed for Pakistan’ Fighter JF-17 ‘Thunder’. Currently PAF has 120 aircraft, and numbers will increase to 300 later. 6 ZDK-03 Chinese AWACS have been inducted. 60 Chinese designed K-8 Karakorum intermediate jet trainers are currently in service and more are under production. PAF has also received four CH-4 Recce-cum-strike drones which can carry up to 4 PGMs and reportedly have endurance of 30 hours. PAF has bought Chinese SD-10 (ShanDian-10) radar-guided, mid-range homing air-to-air missiles to equip the JF-17 fighters. China has transferred 34 M-11, road-mobile, short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) with related technology, and manufacturing capability to Pakistan.
Despite Chinese pledges to the contrary, it has continued to provide Pakistan with specialty steels, guidance systems and technical expertise in the latter’s effort to develop long-range ballistic missiles. Hatf, Shaheen and Anza series of missiles have been built using Chinese assistance. China helped Pakistan develop nuclear warheads that directly contributed to Pakistan having nearly 150 nuclear warheads as on date. China has supplied Burraq and Shahpar series UAV to Pakistan, and plans to allow license production of Wing Loong UAVs. Chinese J-7 and J-17 Thunder fighter aircraft continue to front line plarforms of PAF. On the naval front the platforms in pipeline are Type 054A/Jiangkai II-class frigates, Yuan class submarines and anti- ship cruise missiles.
To Summarise – Wake Up India
Success of Chinese arms industry is commendable on one side and of concern to the world due to change in status quo that it brings with it. The deteriorating ties between the US and Pakistan, stemming from the perception that Islamabad is not doing enough to combat terrorism in Afghanistan, resulted in a sharp decline in US arms supplies, but pushed Pakistan into Chinese arms. Pakistan is the key to success of Chinese BRI, and in a way for China to boost its military presence. In some ways it is a project to colonize. The 21-century version of the East India company. The changed South Asian dynamic (with China rapidly expanding its footprint) necessitates action options for India to be considered on an urgent basis. India has not been able to get its defence production act in place despite repeat Make-in-India (now Atmanirbharta) initiatives by various governments. One gets a feeling that the political class, bureaucracy and military are not jointly serious about indigenisation, at least they have not been able to get the act right till now. India needs to improve its project management approach. As China uses arms sales along with BRI as another tool to encircle and weaken India, it is wake up time for India, lest it becomes too late.
- How dominant is China in the global arms trade? https://chinapower.csis.org/china-global-arms-trade/#:~:text=Between%202008%20and%202018%2C%20China,Russia%2C%20Germany%2C%20and%20France.
- New SIPRI data reveals scale of Chinese arms industry, 27 January 2020 https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2020/new-sipri-data-reveals-scale-chinese-arms-industry#:~:text=%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B,States%20but%20ahead%20of%20Russia.
- SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, 2018. https://chinapower.csis.org/data/sipri-arms-transfer-data/
- SIPRI Arms Trade Statistics for Non-State Actors, 2018. https://chinapower.csis.org/data/sipri-arms-trade-statistics-for-non-state-actors/
- United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, 2018. https://chinapower.csis.org/data/un-register-of-conventional-arms/
- How dominant is China in the global arms trade? https://chinapower.csis.org/china-global-arms-trade/
Picture Credit: reuters.com