With a regularity almost approaching that of the tides, there has recently been a frenzy of fevered pronouncements about China becoming a major arms exporter—and perhaps even giving serious competition to the traditionally front-running United States. Most of this is hype, but there is some truth to all the mania.
For the most part, China’s arms industry does not seriously threaten U.S. arms exports, at least not in terms of quantity. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China garnered only 5 percent of the total global arms market from 2010 to 2014—good enough to rank third among the world’s arms exporters, but still well behind the United States, with 31 percent of the global market, and Russia, with 27 percent. Moreover, the bulk of China’s recent weapons shipments—nearly 70 percent—went to just three countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
That said, there are some areas where China is breaking new ground in the global arms trade, both in terms of new customers and new products. It has sold frigates to Algeria, trainer jets to Bolivia and Venezuela, and anti-ship missiles to Indonesia. More troubling, however, China has quite suddenly become a key exporter of armed drones, also referred to as unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or UCAVs. It’s troubling, and not only because this is a potentially lucrative segment of the arms business that is likely to grow significantly over the coming decades and therefore challenge U.S. exports. Armed drones are also a growing proliferation concern, given that they are extremely effective and increasingly the weapon of choice on many battlefields.