Valerio Fabbri's Blog

No Matter How Ukrainian Crisis Ends, China’s Arms Giants are Always Winners?

May 25, 2022

Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has changed the recent fortunes of the weapon industry, enabling it to make huge profits. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has been going on since February 24, has witnessed a massive growth in defence spending. In April, the U.S. had stated that it will send an additional 800 million U.S. dollars in weapons, ammunition and other security assistance to Ukraine. The European Union recently announced that it would buy and deliver 450 million U.S. dollars of arms to Ukraine. According to rough estimates, the U.S. and NATO have sent 17,000 anti-tank weapons and 2,000 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, for instance.


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So, arms industry across the globe is looking at the Russia-Ukraine conflict as the golden opportunity rather than a crisis. Chinese arms manufacturers are no different here. China’s arms industry is no different. Although no information is available regarding new sales opportunities for Beijing, experts claim that heavy demand for Chinese arms and ammunitions is expected from several countries including Middle-Eastern and African countries. The ongoing conflict has compelled several countries to increase their budget on defence and security, while China sees it as an opportunity to sell arms and ammunitions and make money, given that several countries are set to spurn Russia to avoid consequent sanctions and may look at China for arms supplies.

China is currently the fourth-largest military equipment exporter in the world, increasing not only its arms sales, but also military training and investment in Africa’s infrastructure projects, which are giving Beijing a foothold on the continent. “The trend is clearly upward and what that arms sales diplomacy gives China is a lot more influence, a lot more power, over those African states,” said Dylan Lee Lehrke, a lead analyst at Jane’s: “It’s a military dependency.” Nearly 70% of the 54 countries on the African continent possess Chinese armoured military vehicles, and nearly 20% of all military vehicles in Africa are imported from China, according to the new analysis by Jane’s, a company known for its publications on global weapons. The study shows sharp increases over the past two decades in Chinese military equipment sales to Africa, compared with the continent’s traditional benefactor, Russia. Countries like Tanzania, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Gabon, Algeria, Namibia, Ghana and Ethiopia are among the top importers of Chinese arms.

China’s footprint in the entire Middle East has been widening rapidly ever since the announcement of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. China’s focus has been on clinching major BRI-connected economic investment deals, mainly infrastructure and connectivity projects in Middle East, Beijing has taken note of the lucrative defense markets of the Middle East. The developing geopolitics in the region, and also uncertain policies on the part of the United States, seem to have prompted China to reorient its strategies. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s recent report China has sold 4.6% of international weapon exports from 2017-21. Interestingly, this compared to China's 6.4% share of the global arms market in the preceding five-year period. This represented a 31% drop for China in terms of global arms sales, considerably lower than the 4.6% drop in global arms sales in 2017-21 compared to 2012-16. China has trailed behind the U.S., Russia and France from 2017-21 but remained ahead of traditional heavyweights such as Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand are China’s clients for arms and ammunitions. The report stated that nearly half of Chinese weapon exports – 47%, in fact – went to closest ally Pakistan, while Beijing’s next largest clients were Bangladesh and Thailand at 16% and 5% respectively.

When it comes to military equipment, China has clients mostly in Asia. According to available information, some 79% of Chinese arms exports were destined for Asia in the period between 2017 and 2021, with as many as 48 countries procured Chinese equipment. Given the relative strength of China’s position on the arms export table, it is perhaps surprising that China also appeared fifth in the international list of arms importers, behind India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Australia. As far as arms imports are concerned, China soaked up 4.8% of global arms imports from 2017 to 2021, compared to 2012-16 when it imported 4.4%. SIPRI reported that 81% of China’s most recent imports came from Russia, while 9.1% emanated from France and 5.9% from Ukraine. SIPRI has noted that Chinese arms imports remained stable between 2012-16 and 2017-2021, and mainly came from Russia in both periods. However, China’s arms imports are likely to decrease in the next few years as its industry is now capable of producing most types of major arms.

China has been a supplier of affordable and functional military equipment, including small arms, armoured vehicles, artillery, naval vessels, aircraft and missiles. It has sold 36 J-10C fighters to Pakistan, and delivered HQ-22 (FK-3) surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to Serbia. Experts however said that a lot of countries have little or no faith in Chinese companies because of poor after sales support. China has a bad reputation of not providing aftersales support, and equipment can rapidly decline into non-functional machinery. The more sophisticated the equipment it sells, the more maintenance support it will require from China. Available reports suggested that Jordan put its Chinese-manufactured CH-4 armed drones up for sale less than two years after buying them. Countries like Morocco, Nigeria and Turkmenistan have preferred drones from Turkey rather than China.

A RAND Corporation study in 2021 clearly pointed lacuna in Chinese defence contracts, stating there is a lack of transparency and accountability. China itself is under American and European military sanctions, and these certainly affect exports. Thailand awaited its first S26T submarine from China, with delivery delayed, first by COVID-19, and then by the fact that Germany refused to sell diesel engines to China for the vessel. Also, China lacked the ability to manufacture highly sophisticated parts as it is still not considered as first-rate developer and producer of state-of-the- art military material. In short, while Chinese military capabilities are limited vis-à-vis Western technologies and developments, Bejing’s assertive policy in terms of arms sales and presence around the world should raise some cautionary eyebrows.

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