Pope Francis lambasted the weapons trade as "the industry of death" in response to a question from a child about war.
That said, the amount of arms these countries have sold around the world, relative to the United States or Western Europe, is small potatoes. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the combined value of arms deliveries by ten of the largest arms-exporting countries in the developing world – Brazil, Jordan, India, Iran, South Korea, Serbia, Singapore, South Africa, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates – amounted to barely two percent of all the world’s arms trade for the period 2000-2014, or about $7.3 billion worth.
In contrast, the United States exported more than $110 billion in arms and captured nearly one-third (31 percent) of the global market; in 2014, it won 36 percent of the market. Moreover, this level has remained more or less consistent over the past 15 years. Meanwhile, Russia has consistently taken the number two slot for the past decade and a half, with around a quarter of the global arms export business, while the four largest West European arms exporters – France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom – together accounted for around 20-22 percent of the market. China, on average, has typically captured only around 4 percent to 5 percent of the global arms trade, although for the period 2010-2014, higher-than-average sales catapulted it into the number three position.
The visit by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to the Russian port of Novorossiysk comes amid reports Russia is considering a purchase of PLAN Type 054A frigates. Unthinkable just ten years ago, it’s a reminder of how far China’s domestic arms industry has come since the West imposed an arms embargo.
In the past five years the People’s Republic of China has announced a series of arms deals cementing its position as a major player in the global arms market. Among others deals, China will supply Argentina with offshore patrol vessels, Nigeria with corvettes, and Pakistan with submarines.
China’s long push to create a domestic arms industry is bearing fruit, and Chinese ships, aircraft, radar, and missiles are seen as an affordable alternative to Western offerings. While Chinese designs are likely inferior to Western—and even Russian counterparts—they are cheap, can be purchased in quantity, are delivered more quickly, and are attached to fewer political strings.
In the early 1980s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began opening China up politically and economically to the rest of the world. For a brief period China’s defense industry enjoyed considerable cooperation with its Western counterparts, as the prospect of arming the massive People’s Liberation Army was a lucrative prospect.
The arms embargo imposed in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre ended that cooperation. China was left with few options other than to develop an industrial base capable of fully meeting the needs of the entire PLA. Toward that end China has spent a great deal of effort modifying Western equipment, conducting espionage against Western defense contractors, importing Russian technology and talent, and innovating to produce a new generation of post-Tiananmen weapons.
Overseas sales are welcome to offset research and development costs. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s arms exports have risen 143 percent worldwide in the past five years. China is now third in exports of military equipment worldwide— behind the United States and Russia.
The proliferation of inexpensive, technologically advanced Chinese weapons will eventually prove a challenge for Western countries, particularly the United States and United Kingdom. The sale of advanced ships, missiles, and planes to Argentina, for example, will complicate the U.K.’s defensive plan for the Falkland Islands.