An Export to Arms: Is China’s weapons trade as menacing as it seems?

The weapons arrived in crates marked “Norinco.” The rifles, grenades, and missile launchers were bought on credit — oil fields were the collateral. The guns were copies, based on old Soviet designs, but they were simple to use, hard to break, and cheap to replace. Just like everything from toys to t-shirts, they were marked “Made in China.”

The world paid little attention when Chinese weapons began showing up in South Sudan. A recent report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan showed that the South Sudanese government purchased $46.8 million in weapons from the state-owned China North Industries Corporation, known more commonly as Norinco. Since China surpassed Germany as the world’s third-largest distributor of weapons, behind only the United States and Russia, the international community has increasingly perceived the transfer of arms from China to Africa as commonplace. Now, with evidence of war crimes mounting on both sides of the South Sudanese civil war, China’s ostensible doctrine of noninterference and neutrality must be reconciled with the emergent superpower’s growing reputation as the world’s discount arms dealer. As China strives to be a 21st Century superpower, it will have to contend with expectations of responsible engagement that past powers have not had to face.

While some might consider the foray into arms dealing merely another form of China’s ongoing market expansion, the sale of Chinese weapons cannot be summed up as disinterested mercantilism. Instead, it is part of a broader pattern of geopolitical posturing from the world’s largest economy. Analysts have known for years that China’s high rates of production belie an increasingly acute need for natural resources, and demand for oil in particular has produced a worrying pattern of economic adventurism. In a conversation with Brown Political Review, Roger Cliff, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council specializing in Asian security, said that targeted sales of Chinese weapons handled through state-owned enterprises were part of a broader strategy to “access strategic raw materials.”

A growing need for resources drives the Chinese government to back expedient trade deals, forging partnerships with countries that many geopolitical players would hesitate to do business with. In the last year alone, China’s crude oil imports increased 22 percent, with an estimated 7.25 million barrels of foreign oil arriving each day. In an attempt to sweeten the trade deals in resource-rich corners of the world, the oil-hungry nation has offered everything from traditional infrastructure development projects to pistols and antitank missile systems. Whereas the United States often refuses to trade with countries it considers to be human rights violators, according to Cliff, China “does not have any such qualms.” The American use of economic power to inject its voice into other states’ decision-making processes has its own geopolitical pitfalls, but thanks to its hands-off approach, China has become the go-to trade partner for countries with poor human rights records.

Yet the sale of weapons is no amoral capitalism — it’s a reflection of Beijing’s use of industrial power to achieve political goals. By choosing to deal with nations ranging from democracies to authoritarian regimes, China has made a calculated toss of the widest possible net in an attempt to expand its geopolitical reach. As a state-owned entity, Norinco’s sale of weapons to South Sudan should be understood as permitted, if not planned, by Beijing. But selling weapons is only “one of the tools China has” and is far from “the only tool in their toolkit,” according to Cliff. Beijing also encourages its state-owned enterprises to seek out profits overseas and attempts to cultivate diplomatic ties with the governments of their trading partners. Such was the case in South Sudan, where China’s sale of weapons was part of a broader series of investments, which included an $8 billion pledge to develop oil infrastructure.

China’s arms transfers in South Sudan were just business as usual until the Stetson-wearing president, Salva Kiir, accused former Vice President Riek Machar of plotting a coup in December 2013. In the weeks that followed, the tenuous internal peace that had emerged from South Sudan’s independence crumbled — a civil war began to tear Africa’s youngest nation apart. It quickly became yet another excuse to settle tribal scores in a region that has come to be defined by decades of ethnically motivated bloodletting.

Vol4.3Clifford_1In the last year and a half, the government forces of South Sudan have used Chinese-made weapons to wage what the international community has largely condemned as a scorched-earth policy against rebel forces. Government forces have been accused of burning entire villages to the ground as part of a widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing, forced military recruitment of children, and mass rape. China’s hands in this war seem less than clean. In July 2014, Norinco delivered 100 guided missile systems, over 9,000 automatic rifles, and 20 million rounds of ammunition to the South Sudanese government. Human Rights Watch has since called for a comprehensive arms embargo in response to “extraordinary acts of cruelty” on both sides of the civil war in which tens of thousands have died and almost five million are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Both parties maintain that they signed the deal prior to the outbreak of the war and that the delivery of war material from China has since ceased.

To many, the events in South Sudan are yet more proof that China’s rise will only cause geopolitical turbulence. But it is an oversimplification for countries like the United States to pigeonhole China as a bad actor. Despite Chinese weapon transfers to North Korea, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Iran — oft-touted examples that China is indeed the geopolitical bogeyman that many make it out to be — the country’s customers also include long-time allies of the United States like Thailand, Peru, and Pakistan. Indeed, the American use of weapons transfers during the Cold War offers a less-than-stellar track record. The United States sold arms to Iran until 1979, to Iraq throughout the Iran-Iraq War, and to the Afghan Mujahideen. These actions are prime instances of trades made for short-term geopolitical gains but with damaging long-term repercussions. Given its checkered past, the United States lacks any clear moral high ground from which to condemn China’s policy.

Furthermore, if weapons sales are the next great game, then China is barely on the scoreboard. Alarmists should recognize that despite China’s 143 percent increase in weapons sales over the last five years, it still only represents 5 percent of the global arms market. Russia, the world’s second-largest producer, has a 27 percent global market share while US exports make up 31 percent. In fact, from an economic and geopolitical perspective, Chinese weapons sales are competing far more directly with Russian than American transfers. Both Russia and China tend to sell weapons known for their reliability, simplicity, and cost-effectiveness — putting them in competition for trade with poorer countries. On the other hand, Cliff points out that American foreign policy has effectively “locked up” many major weapons markets, including South Korea, Israel, and Japan. As a result, Russia and China are left to compete for market space — and by extension, influence — among the nonaligned countries of the developing world.

Even there, China is struggling to corner the market. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China is currently the dominant arms dealer in just three African countries: South Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia. While weapons sales are hardly the defining factor in the relationship between two countries, it is clear that even in South Sudan, where China enjoys an unusually monopolistic relationship in weapons sales, Beijing’s ability to influence decision-making is limited. In a rare divergence from an espoused policy of noninterference in Africa, China committed 800 soldiers to South Sudan as part of a UN peacekeeping mission. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said that the commitment of troops was “the responsibility and duty of a responsible power and not because of China’s own interests.” However, a report by the research group Small Arms Survey revealed that China was also backing a 700-strong militia in the Unity State — South Sudan’s oil-producing region — in order to safeguard an oil field. For Beijing, an end to the war would be a win twice over, proving to the world that China is capable of being a geopolitical leader while restoring a semblance of normality conducive to trade. But despite repeated attempts at intervention and mediation, China has struggled to bring its influence to bear in conclusively ending the civil war.

Though China is still, in many ways, taking its first steps as a world power, its struggling aspirations for responsible stewardship in Africa are proof that economic ties are not the sole pillar of diplomacy. The wariness of nations in China’s own backyard is testament to this. On account of its vacillations between indifference and belligerence, China’s foreign policy has failed to foster trust with its neighbors. It is unclear to what extent China has attempted to use weapons sales to cultivate relationships with neighboring states, but its perceived aggressions in the South China Sea have certainly had a far more negative impact on regional relations than “friendship prices” on pistols are capable of making up for. Asian nations don’t turn to China — the regional power and a country that they should have every economic incentive to cooperate with — as their sole provider of weapons. While many of the less wealthy Asia-Pacific nations buy with a relative lack of distinction between the United States, China, and Russia, the region’s wealthier countries — and major players in the South China Sea dispute — import their weapons primarily from the United States. And unlike nations that share borders with the United States and Russia, no Chinese neighbor, with the exception of Myanmar, buys weapons in any significant quantity from Beijing.

Vol4.3Clifford_2China has largely struggled to be seen as a responsible actor on the global stage, and each transgression of global practice only makes it harder for Beijing to win the world’s trust. While mediation in the South Sudanese civil war is a step in the right direction, it has done little to offset widespread misapprehension over Beijing’s broader ambitions. “In some ways they’ve gone backwards,” Cliff remarks of the international community’s perception of China. Tensions with neighboring countries, cybertheft, and new restrictions on NGOs and foreign corporations all loom large in the minds of the international community. In comparison, weapons sales are only seen as part of the larger struggle that the emergent superpower faces in balancing competing political and economic interests. Despite their potent symbolism, they pose less of a threat to global stability than a casual observer might fear.

So far, it would seem that the influx of Chinese weapons has had relatively little effect on the global balance of power. Even among African nations where China is the sole supplier, Cliff points out that “these countries don’t have a lot of cash, so you’re looking at a small number of weapons.” But wars of the 21st Century are rarely fought with the parity of the 20th. As Chinese weapons and weapon systems — notably their guided missile technology — advance, the impact of China’s dealings with more volatile governments may start to have a larger effect, particularly in domestic clashes, which have comprised 90 percent of the world’s conflicts in the last 25 years. While this trend may be a relative, if cynical, plus for geopolitical stability, China’s apolitical sale of weapons will continue to fuel conflicts of the most appalling nature. However, Cliff warns that it is “too early to tell” what the effect of China’s narrowing the technological gap will have on the global distribution of weapon technology, since the People’s Liberation Army continues to block the sale of the most advanced weapons outside of China.

Like most of China’s actions, its interventions in Africa and the proliferation of international arms sales can be twisted to fit almost any trope about the emergent superpower. Fears of arms transfers originating in China are a reflection of a broader Sino-centric anxiety, and this sentiment seems to confirm only the worst stereotypes of either wanton irresponsibility or nefarious strategy. While China has made no secret of its ambitions to be a major player in international politics, so far its actions have largely followed suit with the trajectory of the decisions of the 20th Century powers. But China is emerging in a more interconnected world than that of its historical peers — and good governance is now an expectation, not an ideological aspiration.  

Graphics by Reca Safarti