The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently released its data on the global arms trade for 2021, and the news for China is not good. Most foreign arms buyers continue to shun Chinese weapons systems.
According to SIPRI, Chinese arms exports for 2017–2021 fell by nearly one-third over the previous five-year period (2012–2016). Altogether, China accounted for only 4.6 percent of all global arms sales, compared to 6.4 percent from 2012 to 2016.
In fact, China is presently a poor fourth in the international rankings for largest arms exporters. Russia took second place with 19 percent of the global arms market, and France was third with 11 percent. China was only one-tenth of a percentage point ahead of Germany, number five on the list.
Of course, these numbers can and do change from year to year. But the fact remains that China has never been better than a distant third in the global arms bazaar, never even hitting double-digits in terms of percentage of the total worldwide overseas arms sales.
China’s poor performance looks even worse when compared to the United States. The United States has actually widened its lead over its competitors. From 2017 to 2021, U.S. arms exports were 108 percent greater than Russia, compared to 34 percent higher from 2012 to 2016. Currently, the United States exports more than eight times as many weapons as China.
Moreover, U.S. overseas arms sales are highly diversified. From 2017 to 2021, the United States transferred arms to 103 countries, more than any other supplier. Its single largest customer, Saudi Arabia, accounted for 23 percent of all sales.
The news was equally bad for Russia. Moscow’s arms exports during 2017–2021 were even more concentrated than China’s: just four states—India, China, Egypt, and Algeria—combined accounted for 73 percent of total Russian arms exports.
Beijing’s falling arms sales are due to declines in sales in two of its most critical markets, Africa and Asia. Algeria, Sudan, and Indonesia—at one time buyers of considerable numbers of Chinese armaments—have greatly reduced their weapons purchases from China. So has Venezuela. Only Pakistan, dependent on Beijing for 72 percent of its imported weapons systems, remains a loyal customer.
So Beijing has sold some very dangerous weaponry to some very bad players, but often the dollar figures were too low (or were unknown) to show up on most arms sales registers.
That said, Chinese transfers of major conventional weapons systems have been unexceptional. Big deals have been few, and many promised sales have failed to materialize.
Take, for example, China’s J-10 fighter jet. It has been designated a “fourth-generation-plus” combat aircraft, roughly equivalent to the latest version of the U.S.-built F-16 fighter jet. The J-10 features a relatively advanced radar and “glass cockpit,” a fly-by-wire flight control system, and even a certain amount of stealthiness. It can fire long-range air-to-air missiles and even serve as a ground-attack aircraft.
One thing is for sure: hardly anyone is buying Chinese tanks, fighter jets, or submarines, or likely will be doing soon.