Decades of economic growth coupled with its ongoing military modernization have enabled China to emerge as a major player in the global arms trade. For years, Beijing imported several times more conventional weapons than it sold overseas, but since 2013 the value of Chinese arms exports has surpassed that of its foreign acquisitions. Between 2008 and 2017, China exported some $14.4 billion worth of conventional weapons across the globe, making it the 5th largest arms supplier in the world – behind the United States, Russia, France, and Germany.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s conventional arms sales surged from $650 million in 2008 to $1.13 billion in 2017.1 The lion’s share of these exports, around 74 percent, went to Asia. An additional 21 percent flowed into Africa. Although China has established itself as an arms export leader, the overall value of its trade still pales in comparison to the United States, whose exports averaged $9 billion annually over the last ten years.
Selling Arms to its Neighbors
Most of Beijing’s arms exports are sold to countries close to home. Despite low levels of arms exports throughout the mid-1990s and into the mid-2000s, most of what China did export (82.8 percent) were shipped to countries across Asia. This trend has continued as China has emerged as a leader in the global arms trade. A combined 62.4 percent of China’s conventional weapons sales since 2008 have found their way to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Other Asian countries have purchased an additional 11.8 percent of Chinese arms.
Over the past decade, Chinese arms sales across South and Southeast Asia grew from $386 million in 2008 to $1.5 billion in 2016 before falling to $948 million in 2017. Notwithstanding this growth, China lags other traditional arms exporters to the region. Since 2008, the US has exported $27.2 billion worth of conventional weapons across Asia (not including the Middle East).2
Close military ties have paved the way for China to supply Pakistan with more arms than any other country. These exchanges are often tied to political objectives. Due in large part to growing cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad on counter-terrorism initiatives, sales surged from $250 million in 2008 to over $750 million in 2009. In March 2018, Beijing announced the sale of sophisticated optical tracking systems that could be used for nuclear missiles with multiple warheads. This announcement came just weeks after India successfully tested the Agni-V long-range ballistic missile in mid-January. Other purchases highlight close levels of collaboration between China and Pakistan, such as the co-developed JF-17 aircraft.
Bangladesh is also a strong buyer of Chinese weapons. Between 2008 and 2017, China provided $1.86 billion of weapons to Bangladesh. This constitutes 71.9 percent of Bangladesh’s military acquisitions over this period, making China far and away the biggest supplier of arms to Dhaka. China supports these procurements by offering generous loans and providing its wares at competitive prices. Discounted acquisitions include the 2013 transfer of two used Type-035G Ming-class submarines for Bangladesh for just over $100 million each. Since 2006, China has also supplied Bangladesh with the majority of its small arms, totaling over 16,000 rifles and 4,100 pistols.
Myanmar is the third largest market for Chinese arms exports in Asia. Since the easing of sanctions against Myanmar in the early 2010s, it has ramped up its acquisition of foreign arms. This buying spree has enabled China to make considerable inroads. Over the last six years, Myanmar has imported $954 million in conventional weapons from China. Higher ticket items include 17 JF-17 aircraft, 12 Chinese Rainbow UAVs, 2 Type-43 Frigates, and 76 Type-92 armored vehicles.
The Market for Chinese Arms in Africa
For most of the 1980s and 1990s, weapons sales to Africa represented less than 15 percent of its total arms exports. As China has worked to expand its foothold in the region, this number has grown. Since 2008, countries in Africa collectively purchased around 21 percent ($3 billion since 2008) of China’s overall arms exports. Northern African countries are the primary destination of Chinese weapons, constituting 42 percent of Chinese exports to the continent. An additional 29 percent flows into to Eastern Africa, and the remaining 29 percent are divided between other African states.
This relatively wide market distribution is somewhat unusual for major arms traders. Of the $4.9 billion of US arms exported to Africa over the last decade, roughly 87 percent were purchased by Egypt and Morocco. Similarly, Algeria and Egypt accounted for 84 percent of Russian arms transfers in Africa over the same period. In terms of trade value, Russia leads the pack at $12.4 billion in sales since 2008. The US tallied less than half of that at $4.9 billion, while China sold around $3 billion.
That said, Chinese weaponry is becoming increasingly attractive due in part to its cost-effectiveness. Although Chinese arms are often less advanced than those sold by other countries, the DOD notes that “Chinese arms are less expensive than those offered by the top international arms suppliers… [but still] have advanced capabilities.” For example, the low-cost K-8 jet trainer is estimated to make up 80 percent of all jet trainer aircraft in Africa.
China is actively working to strengthen its foothold in certain markets, such as Algeria. China’s exports to the North African country totaled $483 million between 2008 and 2014, but jumped to $247 million in 2015 alone and peaked at $499 million in 2016 as several weapon orders were fulfilled. These procurements included three C-28A frigates, which were ordered by Algeria in 2012.
Although not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a non-proliferation agreement targeted at missiles and systems capable of delivery weapons of mass destruction, Beijing is generally compliant with international protocols. The 2002 Regulations on the Export Control of Missiles and Missile-related Items and Technologies, for instance, outlines measures to safeguard against proliferation. In June 2017, China published a draft of the Export Control Law, which if enacted will update existing legislation and establish a comprehensive export control regime.
Beijing has been quick to adapt its domestic regulations to account for emerging technology. This has enabled it to fill the void left by other suppliers. The US, which has long been at the forefront of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development, has purposely restricted the export of its UAVs. Regulations that until recently characterized long-range unmanned aerial systems as cruise missiles, have also limited overseas access of American UAVs. These factors have created a ripe market opportunity for China, which has made its UAVs available to countries such as Nigeria and Egypt.
It is worth noting that Chinese weapons have found their way into various conflict zones. Reports indicate that Chinese arms have been used during conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Somalia. In July 2014, China North Industries Corporation delivered 100 guided missile systems, over 9,000 automatic rifles, and 24 million rounds of ammunition to the South Sudanese government, whose actions have been widely criticized by the international community.
China’s Modest Arms Trade with the Americas
Over the past decade, Chinese arm sales to the Americas have grown modestly. In 2008, China exported a meager $41 million to countries in the Western Hemisphere. This number plateaued at $178 million in 2015 before dropping to $36 million in 2016. Beijing did not sell any weapons to the region in 2017. Chinese conventional weapons make up just 3 percent of the combined North and South American arms import market, which is dominated by the United States (19 percent), Russia (14 percent), and Germany (12 percent).
|Top 5 Chinese Arms Export Destinations in the Americas, 2008-2017|
|Overall Rank||Country||Value (Millions $)||% of Total|
|3||Trinidad and Tobago||16||2|
|Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database|
Chinese arms exports in the Americas are concentrated in Venezuela, which attracted 87.4 percent of Beijing’s regional weapons sales over the last decade. Chinese weapon transfers to Venezuela did not begin in earnest until after 2006 when the United States placed an arms embargo against Venezuela for failing to cooperate in US-led anti-terrorism efforts. Since then Caracas has found a ready partner as it has sought to upgrade its military in a cost-effective manner.
Notable transactions include the sale of 18 K-8 trainer jets in 2010, 121 VN-4 armored vehicles in 2012, and an undisclosed number of C-802 anti-ship missiles in 2017. China is now Venezuela’s number two supplier of conventional weapons at 12 percent of the market share; a position well behind Russia’s dominant role as the supplier for 74 percent of Caracas’ arms imports.
While China’s major conventional weapons sales in the region are limited, China is a provider of small arms to North America. Prior to 2009, most of these procurements flowed into Canada, but in recent years Mexico has become a more significant market. All told, however, China only supplies a fraction of both country’s foreign small arms acquisitions. According to some reports, Chinese weapons are increasingly finding their way into the hands of Mexican cartels.
Arms Imports from Russia and Europe
Unlike most other regions where China is a net exporter of arms, Europe presents a different story. More than 99 percent of China’s total arms imports ($12.8 billion) come from Europe, while it exports a paltry $16 million of its own weapons to the continent. This trend is driven by and large by Russia, which supplies China with 67 percent of foreign arms. France and Ukraine collectively supply an additional 23 percent of these imports.
|Aircraft vs Engine Imports from Russia|
|Years||Combat Aircraft||Aircraft Engines|
|Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database|
Historically Russian arms have poured over the border to China, but this trend is shifting. Russian arms sales to China averaged $2.5 billion through the 2000s until 2006, but this figure dropped to around 900 million in recent years. This downturn has reduced the market share of Russian arms exports obtained by China from 47.7 percent of total sales in 2006 to 8.7 percent in 2012.
This trend reflects China’s growing capability to domestically produce weapons, which in many cases has been supported by the successful reverse engineering of existing technology. For instance, the Shenyang J-11 fighter was adopted from the Russia Su-27k that Beijing first purchased in 1992. It has been suggested that China’s HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles were inspired by Russia’s S-300 platform. China’s economic growth has also contributed to this shift. China spends more on research and development than any other country except the United States.
The nature of Chinese arms imports is also changing. Whereas in the past China procured entire weapons systems, it is increasingly purchasing specific components that can be outfitted on platforms designed and built at home. Of particular note is China’s longstanding need to acquire foreign engines to counterbalance its struggles to indigenously produce them. Between 2012 and 2016, China purchased over 420 aircraft engines from Russia, along with four Sukhoi Su-35s. This represents a reversal from 1997 to 2001 when China bought only four engines but 79 finished aircraft from Russia.
Ukraine, which shares technological ties with Russia stemming from the Soviet era, also provides China with propulsion systems. In 2011, Beijing acquired 250 Ukrainian turbofans for trainer and combat aircraft, along with 50 diesel-powered tank engines. A sizable portion of China’s orders from France are also for engines. China has sourced French-built diesel engines, such as the 16PC2.5 and 12PA6, for outfitting its naval vessels. There are also indications that China has acquired French civilian helicopter engines for military use.
- All calculations on this page are provided by SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Database.
- Our calculations are based on the UN’s geoschemes, which categorizes the Middle East as Western Asia.