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China in Africa: The Real Story

WP: "Chinese Weapons Flooding Africa"

Deborah Brautigam

Ugandan Soldier.          Photo credit Peter Doerrie
On Sunday, August 26, 2012 the Washington Post front-page stories included "Chinese Weapons Flooding Africa" with the subheadings "Arms Reach Areas Embargoed by U.N." and "Beijing Works to Thwart Inquiries into Violations."

The article states that Chinese companies are now a major presence at arms shows in Africa, and Chinese arms have been found in multiple war zones, although "there is no proof that China or its arms exporters have intentionally violated U.N. embargoes in any of these countries. But China has stood apart from other major arms exporters, including Russia, for its assertive challenge to U.N. authority, routinely refusing to co-operate with U.N. arms experts and flexing its diplomatic muscle to protect its allies and curtail investigations that may shed light on its own secretive arms industry."

As David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said, "This is really a case of unbridled capitalism and I think the Chinese government is not even always aware of what these companies are doing." Somali pirates have been caught with Chinese made RPGs. Ammunition apparently made in China has been found in Sudan. Chinese diplomats have been "extremely sensitive" about arms investigations in conflict zones. US officials noted that "China was needlessly drawing attention to itself even though other countries such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were supplying Sudan with deadlier and more advanced weapons, including attack helicopters."

The data on Chinese small arms exports from the UN Comtrade is very clear. As in other areas, Chinese exports are booming. China's "going global" policy of increasing exports and taking over markets from other exporters is the force pushing this, although they still have a long way to go.Overall, the United States continues to be the world's top exporter of arms. According to the Congressional Research Service, US arms exports tripled in 2011, a total of $66.8 billion. Russia was second, with a paltry $4.8 billion. The US accounted for 78 percent of global arms sales.

For interesting background, see a thesis by Meredith Blank at the University of Michigan that includes case studies of Chinese arms exports to Niger and Iraq. Blank argues that revenues from arms sales do not explain the pattern of sales she identified. However, she compares these revenues to China's total military expenditure. In China's decentralized/privatized world, this is probably not the right way to see them. As we saw in the notorious Libya case, it appears that Chinese companies with their own balance sheets are "going global" and making arms export decisions and deals. While these exports would certainly have to be approved somewhere up the chain of command, the profits can stay with the company. This is incentive enough.

Beijing generally respects the UN. As research by Harvard professor Alastair Ian Johnston shows in his book Social States, Chinese diplomats were socialized into embracing arms control positions after joining regional and global arms control institutions. Its position on the Security Council gives it an extraordinary power for a developing country. Beijing needs to step up and do the right thing on UN investigations into arms transfers in conflict zones. 

For more on the arms transfer issue, see an earlier China Africa Real Story blog post.