Chinese Small Arms Sales May Fan Conflicts, Equip Terrorists

By Dan Parsons

China is largely in line with international treaties governing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but its global dealings in small arms are shadowy and potentially helpful to anti-U.S. factions abroad, a new study finds.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on Oct. 10 published an analysis, "China's Exports of Small Arms and Light Weapons," that says the nation's officials have failed to disclose their customers' identities and the volume and value of those exports.

An increase in arms sales to developing nations and cases where terrorist groups are found in possession of Chinese-made weapons highlight the need for greater transparency in China’s international small arms sales, writes co-author Mark Bromley, senior researcher for the SIPRI Arms Transfers Program.

“China exports all types of new and surplus [small arms and light weapons], but does not provide public information on either SALW export authorizations or deliveries,” the SIPRI report reads. “China is a supplier of SALW to states that struggle to gain access to supplies from a number of other major SALW producers and exporters and also benefits from the fact that many states are seeking to diversify sources of supply. It is clear that China is an important supplier of SALW to states in the developing world, and fragile and conflict-affected states in particular.”

Pistols, rifles and machine guns are considered small arms. Light weapons generally are rockets, missiles, mortars and large-caliber weapons that can be carried by a soldier.

Until the early 2000s, China was considered a “serial proliferator” of materials associated with the production of weapons of mass destruction, but has come full circle in adhering to international non-proliferations treaties, the SIPRI report finds.  

That is not the case with small arms exports, a healthy portion of which are funneled to developing countries where the weapons often destabilize already tense security environments. Many of those weapons also find their way into the hands of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.

Only state-owned Chinese companies are allowed to export small arms, which “makes China more reticent about publicly detailing the export control mechanisms that it imposes and less willing to engage in debates about how these systems can be improved,” the SIPRI report says.

It is generally understood that Chinese arms exporters follow three criteria in choosing to whom they sell weapons. They “should contribute to the legitimate self-defense capability of the recipient country … should not undermine the peace, security and stability of the region concerned and the world as a whole [and] should not be used as a means of interfering in the internal affairs of the recipient country,” the report says.

However, there is no international treaty that normalizes controls on the sale of conventional arms similar to those governing chemical, nuclear and biological weapons. An attempt to set standards for conventional arms sales was made with the 2013 international Arms Trade Treaty, but China declined to sign it.

Most Chinese weapons for export lack the quality of weapons from the United States, Russia or other developed nations. China is therefore a cheaper source of weapons for poor countries with unsophisticated militaries, like many in Africa, the Middle East and South America, according to an August 2012 Congressional Research Service report on arms transfers to developing nations authored by international security specialist Richard F. Grimmett and non-proliferation analyst Paul K. Kerr.  

“China’s likely client base will be states in Asia and Africa seeking quantities of small arms and light weapons, rather than major combat systems,” the CRS report says. Much of China’s arms exports are to the developing world, “where most analysts agree that the potential for the outbreak of regional military conflicts currently is greatest, and where the greatest proportion of the conventional arms trade is conducted.”

China is seen to have a “guns-for-oil” relationship with some African nations.

“The prospects for significant revenue earnings from these arms sales are limited,” the CRS report says. “China likely views such sales as one means of enhancing its status as an international political power, and increasing its ability to obtain access to significant natural resources, especially oil.”

From 2006 to 2010, nearly 50 nations bought Chinese small arms, most of which went to Africa, the SIPRI report says. Those include Sudan, which imported 72 percent of its foreign-bought weapons — small arms, artillery and ammunition — from China. Sudan is also in the midst of a long and bloody civil war that displaced millions of civilians.

Pakistan and Bangladesh — both hotbeds of non-state terrorist groups — are the largest purchasers of Chinese weapons in the Middle East. Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar also bought imported small arms from China between 2006 and 2011, SIPRI says.

Of special concern to the United States and its allies is the sale of arms to Iran, which has been a major purchaser of Chinese arms since its war against Iraq in the 1980s. China has responded to Western pressure to curtail arms sales to Iran, SIPRI says.

“There is significant evidence to indicate that armed non-state actors in South and South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are using SALW produced in China,” the SIPRI report says. They "may have been stolen from government stocks or seized from government forces on the battlefield. However, in many cases it appears that states have imported weapons from China and then re-transferred them to armed non-state actors.”

The value of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations in 2011 was more than $71.5 billion, twice the total value the year prior. Another $28 billion in arms were actually delivered in 2011.

The United States and Russia overwhelmingly dominate international arms exports and especially in the developing world, the CRS report says.

From 2008 to 2011, the United States sold nearly $113 billion in arms to such nations. Russia made $31.1 billion.

From 2008 to 2011, the value of China’s arms transfer agreements with developing nations has averaged more than $2 billion annually.

With greater transparency, “China would join other responsible suppliers of SALW in showing that it has nothing to hide in its transfers and demonstrating a willingness to discuss its SALW transfers with other members of the international community,” the report says.

Topics: Armaments, Small Arms

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