- Africa - arms trade - China - Darfur - Sudan
China's presence grows in murky world of arms trading
Figures released recently showed the global arms trade was booming, but data on China was conspicuously lacking. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at the Asian power's growing role in the arms business and its impact on global stability.
The world might be struggling under the weight of the worst economic crisis since World War Two, but many countries are apparently more willing than ever to splash out on tanks, fighter jets and AK47s.
A new report by a Swedish think-tank on the often murky arms business revealed sales of weapons and military services by the world’s biggest producers reached $411 billion in 2010, at a time when Western powers were struggling economically.
That figure represents a one percent increase on 2009 figures and a 60 percent rise since 2002.
The data, released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), concentrated on the world’s top 100 arms producing companies, 44 of which were in the United States.
But conspicuous by its absence in the 2010 SIPRI top 100 arms-producing and weapons services list was any data on Chinese arms manufacturers. SIPRI researchers said the Chinese arms industry is home to companies that would make it into the top 100 but there was a lack of “sufficiently accurate data” for them to be included in the report.
China leading the way
Even without the relevant data on China’s arms producers, the role of the Asian powerhouse in the global arms trade continues to come under scrutiny, especially in relation to regions of Africa where conflict and human rights abuses are common.
A separate December 2011 SIPRI report titled, "Arms Flows to Sub-Saharan Africa" revealed that by 2010 China was the number one exporter of arms to the region, ahead of Ukraine and Russia. Between 2006 and 2010, China gained 25 percent of the market compared to 9 percent between 2001 and 2005.
Paul Holtom, director of The Arms Transfers Program at SIPRI, said China was leading the way to challenge the longstanding dominance in arms sales of the big five – the United States, Russia, France Germany and the UK.
China’s growing influence in the market is fuelled by its desire for natural resources and its willingness in a global recession to offer military aid or cheaper deals in exchange for natural resources rather than cash.
The super power’s desire to take a larger slice of the African arms market was seen in 2010 when it was by far the biggest exhibitor at the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) expo - the largest arms fair on the continent - held in South Africa.
It displayed its catalogue of weaponry over 1,200 square metres of floor space in a bid to wow interested delegates from African states.
Some analysts however believe the role of the Chinese has been overplayed by Western powers more keen on hiding their own involvement in the often shady business.
“I think there has been a certain amount of scaremongering from the West towards China,” Paul Midford of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology told FRANCE 24.
“In general, Chinese arms sales to Africa are often exaggerated. They are often identified as the country selling the most arms to Sudan but they are far behind Russia on this.”
While Russia is the largest arms supplier to Africa, the US maintains a consistent global lead mostly because US companies dominate the air surveillance market, a growing business as aerial surveillance and strikes replace conventional ground combat.
Small arms, big money
If reliable statistics on China’s exports of heavy weaponry is hard to arrive at, it’s even more difficult to track the Asian super power’s role in the far murkier world of small arms sales.
Small arms such as AK47’s, Kalashnikovs and grenades are comparatively easy to buy, sell and fire and are considered far more destructive than heavy weapons. They are also responsible for fuelling bloody rebellions and civil unrest.
In an incriminating report released last month, Amnesty International said Chinese manufactured small arms and ammunition was being used by the Sudan Armed Forces and government-backed militias against civilians in the Darfur region.
“China is not the most transparent state when it comes to small arms,” said SIPRI Holtom. “This is where we have a challenge, because it is difficult to control the small arms trade. The reality is you are much more likely to see rebels, for example, using a Kalashnikov rifle made in China than seeing an aircraft delivered by the Chinese state.”
Responsibility on China
As China’s role in the arms trade continues to grow along with its global influence there will be added pressure for Beijing to take a moral lead when armed conflict flares in countries such as Sudan or Syria.
As London based NGO Safer World stated in a recent report, China’s increasing involvement in war-torn countries “brings new responsibilities and policy choices.”
The report also sights the issue of Sudan where although China succumbed to pressure to provide a presence among the UN peacekeeping force, it also continued to sell arms which fuelled the conflict in regions such as Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
But Holtom believes the chances of China taking the lead in introducing arms embargos or initiating peace efforts in war torn nations are slim.
“China’s view is that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of a state. That is how it justifies these arms sales. They say ‘the arms are for use by the state, how they choose to employ them is none of our business, we delivered it to a responsible country,’” he said.
China’s official policy of non interference in the affairs of a foreign country may set it apart from Western nations such as the US, Great Britain and France, but it is not unique in terms of doing business with totalitarian regimes.
Britain and France granted export licenses for millions of dollars worth of arms to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, which caused uproar when he turned them on his people during last year’s Arab Spring uprising.
The US also came under fire from Amnesty International for making healthy profits out of selling arms to the Egyptian regime during the protests on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
But according to Holtom, there is one key difference that makes scrutiny of China’s role in the arms trade more difficult.
“We need to look at all countries but the difference is that in the West there is a strong civil society and parliaments to hold governments to account. That is the contrast with China,” he said.