BEIJING/STOCKHOLM – China has almost doubled its weapons exports in the past five years, a military think tank said Monday, as the world’s third-largest weapons exporter pours capital into developing an advanced arms manufacturing industry.
In 2011 to 2015, China’s arms imports fell 25 percent compared with the previous five year period, signaling a growing confidence in the country’s homegrown weaponry despite areas of weakness, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report on global arms transfers.
Chinese exports of major arms, which excludes most light weaponry, grew by 88 percent in 2011-2015 compared to the earlier five-year time frame, SIPRI said.
The country still accounted for only 5.9 percent of global arms exports from 2011-2015, well behind the United States and Russia, by far the world’s two largest arms exporters.
“The Chinese until ten years ago were only able to offer low-tech equipment. That has changed,” said Siemon Wezeman of the SIPRI arms spending program. “The equipment that they produce is much more highly advanced than ten years ago, and attracts interest from some of the bigger markets.”
China has invested billions developing its homegrown weapons industry to support its growing maritime ambitions in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and also with an eye toward foreign markets for its comparatively low-cost technology. Its total military budget in 2015 was 886.9 billion yuan ($141.45 billion), up 10 percent from a year earlier.
The U.S. and Russia saw weapons exports grow by 27 percent and 28 percent respectively, while exports of major arms by France and Germany, the fourth and fifth largest weapons exporters, fell over the same period.
Most of China’s arms sales went to countries in Asia and Oceania, the report found, with Pakistan accounting for 35 percent, followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Pakistan is a key Chinese ally, and close military ties between the two countries has sometimes stoked tensions with neighboring India, which is seeking to boost its own homegrown weapons industry. India remains by far the biggest importer of major arms, accounting for 14 percent of the total; twice as much as second-placed Saudi Arabia and three times as much as China.
China still needs to import weapons including large transport aircraft, helicopters as well as engines for aircraft, vehicles and ships, according to the report. It signed deals in 2015 to buy air defense systems and two dozen combat jets from Russia, its largest arms supplier.
The report also noted that the overall global transfer of major arms has risen in recent years, with the United States increasing its dominance of the trade, while the flow of weaponry to Africa, Asia and the Middle East has also increased.
The volume of international transfers of major weapons — including sales and donations — was 14 percent higher in 2011-2015 than over the five previous years, with the U.S. and Russia doing most of the exporting.
Aside from China, the biggest importers were India, Saudi Arabia, China and the United Arab Emirates.
The authors of the report singled out the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is backing the government against Iran-supported Shiite Houthi rebels.
“A coalition of Arab states is putting mainly U.S.- and European-sourced advanced arms into use in Yemen,” Wezeman said in the report.
The United States has sold or donated major arms to a diverse range of recipients across the globe, the report said.
“As regional conflicts and tensions continue to mount, the USA remains the leading global arms supplier by a significant margin,” said Aude Fleurant, director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program.
“The USA has sold or donated major arms to at least 96 states in the past five years, and the U.S. arms industry has large outstanding export orders,” including for over 600 F-35 combat aircraft, said Fleurant.
The biggest chunk of U.S. major arms, 41 percent, went into Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East.
“Despite low oil prices, large deliveries of arms to the Middle East are scheduled to continue as part of contracts signed in the past five years,” Wezeman added.
Russia remains in second place on the SIPRI exporters list, with its share of the total up three points to 25 percent, though the levels dropped in 2014 and 2015 — coinciding with Western sanctions against Moscow over the Ukraine conflict.
India took the largest chunk of Russian weaponry and SIPRI also listed pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine among the recipients.
The overall transfer of arms has been upwards this century after a relative drop in the previous 20 years.