China as an Arms Exporter: Brief Historical Background and Current Status

Today, China is not so much a mass producer of consumer goods, the home of AliExpress and the creator of low-quality technology, as it is one of the leaders in technological and scientific progress, the third country to send an expedition to Mars and a power whose opinions and interests are worth reckoning with.

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The PRC is also firmly established on the arms market, becoming the world's third-largest exporter.[1]

China's sales lists include both the simple small arms produced since the days of cooperation with the USSR and advanced high-tech systems and vehicles such as the VT-4 main battle tanks, which have overtaken the Russian T-90S/MS in tenders by a number of countries.[2]

According to the Russian legislative,[3] military-technical cooperation (MTC) is an activity in the field of international relations related to the export and import, including the supply or purchase, of military products, as well as the development and production of military products. When considering exports of military products, it is important to bear in mind that they are one of the most important components of the MTC.

The history of China's military-technical cooperation

The history of Chinese military-technical cooperation can be roughly divided into three main stages[4]:

  • Ideological
  • Geopolitical
  • Commercial

China's MTC as an exporter began in 1950. At that time, the newly created PRC began to provide military assistance to socialist countries, such as the DPRK during the Korean War or Vietnam during the civil war and US intervention. This was also the time when the first Chinese technology made its way into Africa, to countries that had recently been freed from colonial dependence.  During this period, the PRC acted as an exporter of trophy weapons or as an intermediary between the communist governments and the Soviet Union.

A turning point for Chinese arms exports and the formation of the country's military-industrial complex was the emergence of close ties with the newly created Pakistan. The young Islamic republic proved to be China's largest importer of armaments, military and specialist equipment. During the years of fierce confrontation between India and Pakistan, Islamabad purchased heavy equipment and sophisticated technology required for the country's defence from China. The second, geopolitical, phase of China's military-technical cooperation began there. China has established ties with African countries, including Egypt. The sale of Chinese arms to anti-Soviet units in Afghanistan was a manifestation of the emerging conflict with the USSR. The geopolitical stage compelled Beijing to seek new allies and support the USSR's adversaries in South Asia and Angola.

The next turning point for Chinese arms exports was the Iran-Iraq war. It has demonstrated China's new approach to MTC: One guided solely by commercial gain. Taking advantage of the lack of direct interest in the region by the Soviet Union and Western countries and being able to offer its partners large quantities of inexpensive weapons and military equipment, China became one of the main suppliers of arms to both Iraq and Iran.[5] China's knowledge and understanding of the characteristics and needs of its customer countries have played an important role in establishing a foothold in the region. For example, China took Tehran's tense relations with the West into account when it traded with Iran. It is this approach - with attention to buyers - that has made China an important player in the global arms trade, a state that does not so much buy weapons as it sells them.

China's current stage of arms exports

Speaking about the current range of Chinese arms exports, it is worth noting that China has positioned itself as a supplier of technologically advanced products that can compete with arms of leading exporters such as Russia or the United States. 

Light small arms manufactured by China are not in particular demand abroad. China's main export item is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the MALE and HALE classes, which accounted for up to 50.9% of its total military supplies in 2012-2019. [6] Non-nuclear submarines are another important trade item, accounting for almost 22% of China's total arms exports.[7] Overall, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI),[8] China secures 5.5% of the global arms market.[9] Several Chinese companies are mentioned by the Swedish analysts as being among the world's top twenty arms manufacturers with more than $54.1 billion worth of shipments.

An important area of China's military-technical cooperation is developing relations with developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Price differentiation plays a special role in these markets. China offers poor countries favourable terms for their purchases and the opportunity to buy goods on credit or on a barter basis.

Today, China's closest neighbours - Pakistan and the countries of South and South-East Asia - are its main customers of military products. In recent years, Africa has become an increasingly important destination for Chinese arms exports. The list of the largest importers of Chinese products in 2019 was as follows: the top three were Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria accounting for about 65% of China's total arms exports. They are followed by Thailand, Kazakhstan, Myanmar and Belarus.[10]

In the past decade, the purchase of Chinese military equipment has come to assume not only military but also political significance. Hence why rich African and Asian countries have become importers, like Turkey, Algeria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[11] Military-technical cooperation between China and Turkmenistan is a good example. Ashgabat, having declared a policy of neutrality, could not use only Russian arms and equipment. This raised the question of diversification in procurement. [12] As a consequence, Turkmenistan acquired an impressive list of exporters offering a huge range of military equipment. And it was China that took one of the main positions, accounting for about 27% of all deliveries. This is the second place in terms of volume and quantity of equipment supplied, only surpassed by Turkey.

Other Central Asian republics also import Chinese arms, such as Uzbekistan. Beijing donates small arms, mortars and cars for officials to the Central Asian republic. A telling fact is that the Russian Defence Ministry has only now begun training Uzbek cadets in Russian universities and training centres,[13] while China has guided a training agreement for several years,[14] signed in December 2017 during an official visit to Uzbekistan by a Chinese delegation led by then State Council member and Chinese Defence Minister Colonel General Chang Wanquan. China has supplied Uzbekistan with FD-2000 anti-aircraft missile systems, which are considered the counterpart of the Russian S-300.[15] And these Chinese systems, operated by specialists from the Russian Air Force, have already participated in April 2018 in a joint exercise of the forces that make up the CIS Joint Air Defense System.[16]

Speaking of China's influence on the African continent, it is important to understand that Beijing sees military-technical cooperation with Africa as a way to secure the global economic project "One Belt, One Road". It implies huge Chinese investments in the infrastructure of a large number of countries.[17] An important observation: the sale of Chinese arms to Africa is the most opaque sector of China's arms market.[18] SIPRI experts point out that in practice a supplying company always evaluates the risks of arms sales to a country on its own. Most likely, some of the deals are negotiated by Chinese military attachés and African defence ministers.

When talking about Chinese arms exports, it is impossible to ignore the military cooperation between China and Algeria. Despite the small number of items destined exclusively for the African country's land and naval forces, Algeria remains one of the largest importers of Chinese military products. For example, China's state-owned shipbuilding facility in Guangzhou has built three modern patrol ships, a training ship as well as several missile launchers at Algeria's shipyard.[19] China's defence enterprises have also produced self-propelled artillery systems and unmanned aerial vehicles for the Algerian Democratic Republic. At this stage of cooperation Chinese military products are ideally suited for the Algerian armed forces in terms of price and quality.

According to SIPRI, the PRC has become the world's third largest arms supplier in the last 15 years.[20]

Looking at the current state of Chinese exports, as well as the PRC's position in the global arms market, several conclusions can be drawn:

  1. China has changed a few guiding principles in its military-technical cooperation. In fact, the transition from ideological to economic foundations that took almost 30 years has enabled China to quickly adapt to the changing system of international relations, making it one of the largest arms producers and exporters.
  2. Today, China is moving away from trade in conventional and cheap weapons, increasingly positioning itself as a manufacturer and exporter of high-quality and high-tech products.
  3. Its flexible system of export contracts, as well as its focus on arms sales to developing countries in Africa and Asia, allows China to spread its political and economic influence over a large number of countries.
  4. The peculiarities of modern conflicts, the development of the global arms market and China's technological development increase the likelihood that China will become a leader in the production and sale of high-tech military products in a number of fields, such as unmanned aerial vehicles or main battle tanks.

Author: Sergey Vlasov
Translated by: Kevin Klemann


©«New Defence Order. Strategy» 2021


[1] https://www.bbc.com/russian/business/2015/03/150316_china_arms_trade_siri

[2] https://topwar.ru/175551-jeksportnye-uspehi-tanka-vt-4-kitaj.html

[3]http://pravo.gov.ru/proxy/ips/?docbody=&nd=102054512&intelsearch=%EE%F2+19+%E8%FE%EB%FF+1998+114-%F4%E7

[4] Барабанов М. С., Кашин В. Б., Макиенко К. В. «Оборонная промышленность и торговля вооружениями КНР» // Центр анализа стратегий и технологий; Рос. ин-т стратег. исслед. – М., 2013.

[5] Барабанов М. С., Кашин В. Б., Макиенко К. В. «Оборонная промышленность и торговля вооружениями КНР» // Центр анализа стратегий и технологий; Рос. ин-т стратег. исслед. – М., 2013.

[6] TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL ARMS TRANSFERS, 2019. // SIPRI Fact Sheet [интернет-ресурс] // URL: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/fs_2003_at_2019.pdf

[7] https://armstrade.org/files/yearly_2020_5_1.pdf

[8] Военный экспорт КНР // СОНАР 2050 // URL: https://www.sonar2050.org/publications/voennyy-eksport-kitaya/

[9] TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL ARMS TRANSFERS, 2019. // SIPRI Fact Sheet [интернет-ресурс] // URL: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/fs_2003_at_2019.pdf

[10] TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL ARMS TRANSFERS, 2019. // SIPRI Fact Sheet [интернет-ресурс] // URL: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/fs_2003_at_2019.pdf

[11] Барабанов М. С., Кашин В. Б., Макиенко К. В. «Оборонная промышленность и торговля вооружениями КНР» // Центр анализа стратегий и технологий; Рос. ин-т стратег. исслед. – М., 2013.

[12] О. Загорская. ВТС Китая и постсоветских республик Центральной Азии // Новый оборонный заказ [электронный ресурс] URL: https://dfnc.ru/vtc/vts-kitaya-i-postsovetskih-respublik-tsentralnoj-azii/

[13] Более десятка военных учебных заведений России примут курсантов из Узбекистана // новостной портал Новости Узбекистана [интернет-ресурс] // URL: https://nuz.uz/sobytiya/23719-bolee-desyatka-voennyh-uchebnyh-zavedeniy-rossii-primut-kursantov-iz-uzbekistana.html

[14] Минобороны Узбекистана и Китая подписали план сотрудничества на 2019 год // Новостное агентство Sputnik [интернет-ресурс] // URL: https://tj.sputniknews.ru/asia/20190427/1028785006/minoborony-uzbekistan-china-podpisali-plan-sotrudnichestva-2019-god.html

[15] ЗРС FD-2000 была задействована в Узбекистане в ходе учения противовоздушных сил, входящих в объединенную систему ПВО СНГ // новостной портал Новости ВПК [интернет-ресурс] // https://vpk.name/news/212980_zrs_fd2000_byila_zadeistvovana_v_uzbekistane_v_hode_ucheniya_protivovozdushnyih_sil_vhodyashih_v_obedinennuyu_sistemu_pvo_sng.html

[16]Азар И. Наглеет Восток: Россия увидела в Китае конкурента на рынке вооружений. - Газета.ру. [Электронный ресурс] // URL: https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2010/07/08_a_3396043.shtml

[17] Военные новости: сходка африканских военных в Китае // интернет проект ИноСМИ // URL: https://inosmi.ru/overview/20180705/242683894.html

[18] Военно-техническое сотрудничество КНР со странами Африки и позиции России на африканском рынке вооружений // Российский Совет по международным делам // URL: https://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/columns/sandbox/voenno-tekhnicheskoe-sotrudnichestvo-knr-so-stranami-afriki-i-pozitsii-rossii-na-afrikanskom-rynke-v/

[19] «Основные направления взаимодействия КНР и стран Северной Африки (на примере Марокко и Алжира) // Институт Ближнего Востока [интернет-ресурс] // URL: http://www.iimes.ru/?p=25501

[20] Крупнейшие экспортёры вооружений и их покупатели // Сайт Военное обозрение [интернет-ресурс] // URL: https://topwar.ru/114321-krupneyshie-eksportery-vooruzheniy-i-ih-pokupateli.html


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