A Chinese manufactured armored personnel carrier on the streets of Zimbabwe. Photo Credit: Voice of America
China’s Growing Exports
Africa has emerged as an increasingly important region amidst discussions of renewed great power competition between the United States and China. Weapons sales constitute a critical, yet often underexplored, component of this competition in Africa. Since 2000, China has transformed itself from the world’s largest net importer of weapons to a net exporter. Africa has become an important and growing market for Chinese arms exports. Chinese weapons sales totaled 17% of African arms imports between 2013 and 2017, up 55% from the previous five-year period.[i] China has sold weapons to 23 African countries, more than any other supplier.[ii] Furthermore, China has become the exporter of choice for regimes in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles, Tanzania, and Zambia, all of which receive more than 90% of their weapons from China.[iii] Chinese weapons have been successful for two reasons. Firstly, they are more affordable than American, European, or Russian manufactured systems. Secondly, they lack the strings attached to many American or European arms deals, such as contingencies on human rights records. While it is true that China has made some inroads in Africa’s arms market, one must be realistic about its impact on the continent. Chinese weapon sales are largely disconnected from a wider Chinese strategy. Furthermore, they have underperformed commercially, failing to breakout of the low cost and low technology sector and into the North African market, Africa’s largest market.
Profit, not Strategy
This influx of Chinese weapons, coinciding with other Chinese investments in Africa, including those associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has alarmed some western analysts. China’s arms sales have increased in volume, value, and customer base in recent years, but these sales appear to be largely divorced from Chinese strategy. Profit, not grand strategy, appears to be the primary motivator of these weapon sales. According to one analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s “blanket” style of selling does not typically fit with the notion of linking targeted arms sales with foreign policy objectives. The diversity in the types of weapons and of arms recipients suggests a demand and supply relationship.”[iv] For example, Djibouti, which hosts a People’s Liberation Army base and has seen BRI investment, did not purchase large volumes of Chinese equipment prior to those deals being made. China appears to sell weapons wherever it can to whomever it can. Its strategic objective, if it has one, may be to replace Russia as the primary supplier for African countries unable or unwilling to purchase expensive Western weapons with political contingencies attached. However, in this regard China has failed.
In Africa, the Chinese have largely failed to break out of the low-end sector of the arms market and capture the North African market, the most valuable and profitable arms region. While profit is the main motivator for Chinese weapon sales in Africa, commercially, Chinese weapon sales have been disappointing. Chinese sales to countries that import more than 50% of their weapons from China totaled a meager 2.5% of total sales between 2008 and 2018.[v] China mostly exports lower value items like armored personnel carriers, light training/attack aircraft, and UAVs, and does so in small numbers. This is not to say Chinese arms exports have been a total financial failure. The affordability of products has allowed China to dominate some niche markets. For example, the Chinese-manufactured K-8 trainer aircraft, which doubles as a light attack aircraft, is estimated to make up 80% of all jet trainer aircraft in Africa.[vi] However, this case appears to be an outlier. Most of China’s weapons sales are small, one-time deals that do not capture a large sector of the market. Furthermore, most of these deals do not include long-term training or maintenance contracts, typically the most profitable component of defense deals.[vii]
Worse yet, China has yet to significantly break into the North African defense market, the continent’s largest destination for international arms. Between 2008 and 2018, only 49% of Chinese weapons sales were made to North Africa, the vast majority of which consisted of a three unit frigate deal with Algeria.[viii] This stands in stark contrast to Africa’s two largest suppliers, the U.S. and Russia, which sold 88% and 86.6%, respectively, of their weapons to North Africa during the same time period.[ix] These sales consisted of more complex weapon systems like main battle tanks, helicopters , and fighter aircraft and were often accompanied by long-term training and maintenance agreements. This suggests that despite cheaper Chinese alternatives, North African countries are more comfortable continuing their relationship with their existing arms suppliers, despite their greater cost or political strings.
We need to be realistic about China’s arms sales to Africa. China has made some inroads and accessed new markets. However, its weapon sales appear to be largely disconnected from a wider Chinese strategy, and have underperformed commercially, failing to breakout of the low cost/low technology sector and into the North African market. We should not take China’s failure to link arms to wider strategic aims, or its failure to capture the African defense market, as a constant. As cases like the K-8 trainer illustrate, Chinese weapons with their affordable price tags and no strings attached appeal can dominate certain sectors of the African defense market. As China gains more experience in the international arms trade and familiarity with the African market, we should expect that it will continue to refine and hone its ability to successfully export arms. In a post-pandemic world defined by declining defense budgets, particularly in developing African countries, affordable and stringless Chinese weapons will have greater appeal than ever before.
[i] Cullen S. Hendrix, “Arms and Influence? Chinese arms transfers to Africa in Context,” PIEE, July 15, 2020, https://www.piie.com/blogs/realtime-economic-issues-watch/arms-and-influence-chinese-arms-transfers-africa-context#:~:text=Between%202000%20and%202018%2C%20Zimbabwe,received%20more%20than%2050%20percent.
[ii] Nan Tian, “China’s Arms Trade: A Rival for Global Influence,” The Interpreter, Sept. 17, 2018, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/chinas-arms-trade-rival-global-influence
[iii] Hendrix, Arms and Influence.
[iv] Tian, China’s Arms Trade
[vi] China Power Project Team, “How Dominant is China in the Global Arms Trade,” China Power Project, April 26, 2018, https://chinapower.csis.org/china-global-arms-trade/
[vii] Tian, China’s Arms Trade
[viii] CSIS, How Dominant is China