China has grown its weapons sales by 162 percent over the last five years, allowing it to crack the top five list of arms exporters for the first time and fueling concerns of an arms race in Asia, a new report shows.
There is also some evidence that Chinese industries are using arms sales “as a lever” to open new markets for more lucrative, non-military contracts, according to the report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
For huge state-owned industries like China’s North Industries Corp., known as Norinco, “the arms trade represents only a fraction of their overall revenue,” said Paul Holtom, the report’s lead author.
“They are competing with the big boys now,” said Mr. Holtom, director of the institute’s Arms Transfer Program.
The report shows that the United States remains the top arms exporter, with 30 percent of the global market — followed by Russia, with 26 percent; Germany, 7 percent; France, 6 percent; and China, supplanting Britain, with 5 percent of the market. It’s the first time since the survey began in the 1950s that China entered the top-tier of exporters.
China defended its arms trade Monday, saying its weapons sales to foreign countries adhere to U.N. guidelines and domestic restrictions.
“China always takes a responsible and cautious attitude toward arms exports,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a news conference. He added that Beijing’s arms sales must be justified by the legitimate needs of the buyer and must not harm the peace or security of the buyer’s region.
A Pentagon official authorized to speak only anonymously said the Defense Department “closely monitors” Chinese foreign military sales.
“We believe that China is likely to continue to modestly increase exports as its domestic defense industry improves,” the official said in an e-mail. “We welcome the emergence of a prosperous and successful China as a positive contributor to Asian stability and member of the community of nations.”
According to the report, China also remains the world’s second-largest importer of arms — mainly from Russia.
In fact, the top five importers — India, China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore — are in Asia.
Some scholars fear a regional arms race fueled by concerns about an increasingly aggressive China and worries that the political or budgetary problems will stymie the U.S. pivot to the Pacific, eroding the security umbrella they can offer their allies across the vast ocean.
The news comes as a major U.N. conference meets in New York with the aim of producing an international treaty to regulate the arms trade.
The traditional Chinese customer base, said Richard Fisher, a scholar at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a think tank in Alexandria, Va., were “poor countries, especially dictatorships” that either could not afford or were barred by arms controls from Western markets.
The change to higher end sales “reflects a considerable effort over the past 20 years by Beijing to bolster their arms industry,” Mr. Fisher said. “They can now compete at the higher end.”