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Why Chinese Weapons Exports Are Declining Despite Loyal Clientele

FILE - A model of the Wing Loong II weaponized drone is displayed at a stand for the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp., at a military drone expo in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 25, 2018.

China’s global market share of arms exports is falling as its weapons remain largely untested in combat and come with hidden costs, including political ones, experts say.

Arms sales from the world’s No. 2 economy during 2016-2020 were 7.8% lower than during the previous five-year span, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In market share terms, China’s arms exports shrank from 5.6% to 5.2%, the data show.

Exports from China normally total $3 billion to $4 billion a year, said Richard Bitzinger, a U.S.-based visiting senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The school is part of Nanyang Technological University.

After-sales service support for Chinese hardware often costs a lot against original sales prices that are lower than arms from other exporters, said

Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at the university, said Chinese arms are often cheaper than comparable products from other exporters, but after-sale service support can be costly.

Koh said political friction with China also stops some foreign buyers, especially if the imports require integration with non-Chinese systems.

Lack of combat testing for most Chinese hardware leaves some buyers wondering how well it works, he added. Many types of American-made gear have weathered combat and enjoy more name recognition among importers.

“Ultimately the issue here does come with the made-in-China label, that is not very much positive,” said Koh. “These are those real concerns, so therefore I think the stigma of made-in-China, this certainly goes beyond military equipment.”

Buildup of exports

China ranked as the world’s fourth biggest arms exporter in 2019-2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The United States was first, Russia second and France third.

About 60% of China’s exports went to Algeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan from 2016-2020, according to figures from the Stockholm institute, a widely cited source for armed conflict information. The institute says Pakistan, a Chinese ally that periodically spars with India, took 38% of all exports from China during that period.

Backed by a mature manufacturing base, China has perfected drone technology – especially for civilian use – and learned other weapons-making techniques from Russia, analysts believe. China has “opportunities” now in shipbuilding, Koh said.

FILE - An unmanned helicopter drone AV500 and a painting of a drone are seen at a stand for the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp., at a military drone expo in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 25, 2018.
FILE - An unmanned helicopter drone AV500 and a painting of a drone are seen at a stand for the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp., at a military drone expo in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 25, 2018.

The analysts say poor countries and those at odds politically with the United States typically buy from China, giving it a steady clientele over the past two decades. Buyers are concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia and Latin America.

“China is seeking clients everywhere in the world and it has made some big progress in terms of the technology of its weapons,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, a U.S. Department of Defense institute.

“It also has the ability to upgrade a little bit and at the same time to proffer at a lower price, so it makes the Chinese weapons attractive to many, many countries,” he said.

Signs of occasional stress

Countries that buy Chinese weapons seldom complain – and experts say many never use the equipment because they’re not at war. But signs of stress occasionally appear after a sale.

Two years ago, aviation news websites reported that the Royal Jordanian Air Force had put six Chinese-made CH-4B Pterosaur drones up for resale. Statements before the resale “indicate the Jordanians may be disappointed with its performance, Overt Defense said.

In Thailand, the navy accepted three Chinese-made tanks this year for $11.77 million despite questions from opposition lawmakers about why they took priority over COVID-19 vaccines. The two countries boosted military cooperation in 2016.

Malaysia ordered four Chinese littoral mission ships in late 2016 and saved money by having them made in China, said Shariman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. Two have arrived already.

Littoral mission ships are relatively small vessels designed in the past for stealth combat near coastlines, sometimes against bigger enemies.

Malaysia disputes sovereignty over part of the South China Sea with Beijing, which periodically sends ships into the contested waters. On Monday, Malaysia protested diplomatically over Chinese vessels, including a survey ship, that had entered its exclusive economic zone in the disputed sea near Borneo.

“I think you have to spread the risks a bit and not put out ourselves in a position of dependence and you have to really consider the security consequence of buying from a country with which we have overlapping territorial claims,” Lockman said.

Chinese weaponry generally works “well enough” but not as well as arms from the United States, Bitzinger said.

State-run media in China report few hitches. The official Xinhua News Agency said in 2006 it had followed international rules in a “reasonable, legal and unimpeachable” manner despite accusations then of fostering human rights violations abroad.

The domestically produced Chengdu J-10 starred at Airshow China, a biennial aerospace technology exhibition that took place from Tuesday through Sunday, Xinhua said. These aircraft have not sold abroad so far, Bitzinger said.

China stands ready now to export “one of its mightiest weapons,” a submarine-launched supersonic cruise missile system, China Daily online said last week.