20 October 2018
China's Type 99 tank is an updated Soviet T-72. Photo: Flickr
China's Type 99 tank is an updated Soviet T-72. Photo: Flickr

China sells arms to the most unstable countries on the planet

China, evidently, will sell arms to anyone.

The first thing you notice about recent reports on China’s new role as the world’s third-largest arms dealer is that Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh account for two-thirds of its exports.

Pakistan — a hotbed of terrorism, corruption and illiteracy — is on everyone’s “10 most likely sovereign states to fail” list. The country lurches from crisis to crisis more often than the Los Angeles Lakers.

Myanmar’s military junta is one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes. The country has been mired in a civil war since 1948, and it’s not ending any time soon.

Formerly known as East Pakistan, Bangladesh is plagued with ongoing unrest and violence. Despite the internal strife, the country consistently contributes one of the largest peacekeeping forces to the United Nations. Go figure.

The second thing you notice is that a good chunk of the rest of China’s arms sales are to 18 countries in conflict-torn Africa, some that are arguably even more unstable than Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Sudan, for example, is a veritable hellhole. Last year alone, 457,000 of its people were driven from their homes.

Its president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been wanted for years by the International Criminal Court for directing a campaign of mass killing, rape and pillage against civilians.

Other African recipients of Chinese weapons include Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.

“China does not discriminate politically between buyers,” the Financial Times quoted Yue Gang, a retired army colonel, as saying.

Clearly, China’s customers aren’t so discriminating either.

China has been known for producing locally designed ships, aircraft, tanks and now drones that are greatly inferior to western equivalents.

When it comes to developing arms, China is starting out far behind Russia and the West and is struggling to catch up, respected defense blog War is Boring says.

“And we must not forget that the very government developing all this hardware is also the only source of information about the new gear. For now, it’s wise to be skeptical of Chinese weaponry,” WIB says.

Others analysts say China’s homemade weapons are OK.

“The equipment you get nowadays from China is much better than 10-15 years ago,” The Wall Street Journal quoted Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), as saying.

Customers who used to buy western or Russian equipment can now turn to China and often secure weapons of similar quality at far lower cost, he said.

Many of China’s “new” weapons are actually foreign designs that Beijing’s state companies have licensed, stolen or painstakingly reverse-engineered, WIB says.

The Changhe Z-8 helicopter, for example, was originally the French Super Frelon. The Harbin Z-9 scout helicopter started life as the Eurocopter Dauphin. The Type 99 tank is an updated Soviet T-72.

WIB notes that not all of China’s new hardware is a knock-off.

But “homemade” does not necessarily equal “good”. In many cases, “we can only guess at the weapon’s quality. After all, China has no free press”.

The United States maintained its lead as the top weapon exporter over the past five years, with Russian exports rising 37 percent, a report the SIPRI published Monday said.

China’s exports, meanwhile, increased 143 percent, pushing the country past Germany as the third-largest arms merchant.

The most lucrative Chinese arms contract over the period 2010-14 was the sale of 50 JF-17 fighters to Pakistan, in a deal worth US$800 million.

Regardless of the increased sales volume, SIPRI senior researcher Pieter Wezeman said China has quite a way to go before becoming a first-tier arms exporter.

He said China’s offerings are far too inferior to compete in the industrialized arms market.

Buyer beware.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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