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China's Defense Exports: Small Volume, but Room for Growth

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China is a niche supplier of weapons systems, but has the capacity to expand its arms exports should it choose to do so.

  • In terms of arms sales, the People's Republic of China (PRC) emphasizes affordability and less export control restrictions on recipient countries.
  • China is the fifth largest global arms supplier, after the US, Russia, France, and Germany.
  • Modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) provides latent opportunities for expanding China’s exports.

China’s arms export recipients include a wide variety of countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Over 60 percent of China’s arms sales go to South Asia: Pakistan (35 percent), Myanmar (18 percent), and Bangladesh (10 percent), based on SIPRI data.

China's arms exports are driven by four main factors:

Technological updrading to support China's national security

  • As the PLA continues to modernize its own capabilities, the defense establishment has been able to produce a wider variety of platforms. Some of those weapons and equipment are now available for export.

Defense spending and civilian military integration (CMI)

  • CMI is a long-standing effort in China to encourage collaboration between civilian research organizations, the defense industrial SOEs, and the PLA.
  • CMI is an important initiative under Xi Jinping, which means that incentives to encourage collaboration are likely to continue or increase.

Fewer export control restrictions

  • Historically, China has been willing to sell arms to countries that face restrictions from the United States or Europe.
  • China’s recently passed an Export Control Law (2020) could bring China into alignment with multilateral export control regimes, but implementation of the law is not yet complete.

Arms Affordability

  • Chinese arms remain cost effective for countries that do not necessarily have the capacity to build their own defense industrial base.
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Details

  • Pages:
  • Document Number: DSI-2021-U-030611-Final
  • Publication Date: 10/11/2021