I'm currently working on a paper examining Sino-Zambian relations, focusing especially on Chinese activity in Zambia's mining sector. I've been sitting on this project for quite some time, and finally managed to overcome what had been a most serious case of writer's block with the help of a lovely glass of Bandol (Tempier). Ok, fine, two glasses. In any event, while doing a bit of extra desk research, I happened upon an interesting piece in the recent edition of the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief. Author Richard Bitzinger writes:
China is now, on average, the world’s fifth largest arms exporter, after the traditional leading suppliers: the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. In fact, in 2007 it was fourth in terms of global arms transfer agreements, ahead of France, Germany and Spain.
Nearly all of China’s arms transfers are to developing countries, and in this arena the Chinese defense industry is emerging as a formidable competitor. In fact, China ranked third in terms of arms deliveries to the developing world in 2007. China's largest markets are in Asia, the Middle East, and particularly Africa. In fact, during the period 2004-2007, China was the single largest seller of arms to Africa; and its major customers include Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
Leading Chinese weapons exports (to Africa) include:
- The K-8 trainer jet: China has exported nearly 250 of these lightweight trainer/attack jets since 2000, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database on arms transfers. Its biggest client has been Egypt, which bought 120 K-8s, most of which were assembled locally from kits, between 2001 and 2008. Other customers include Ghana, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, while Venezuela is in negotiations to purchase up to 24 K-8s.
- The F-7MG fighter jet: This aircraft is the export version of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force’s F-7E, itself an upgraded adaptation of the MiG-21. The F-7MG features a larger wing and, reportedly, a British radar. China has sold more than a hundred of these fighters to Bangladesh, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, according the SIPRI Arms Transfers database, since the mid-1990s.
- The WZ-551 armored personnel carrier: Although not a particularly high-tech system, the WZ-551 is notable for being sold widely around the world, including countries like Argentina, Gabon, Kenya, Kuwait, Nepal, Oman, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Tanzania
It remains difficult to gauge how successful China will be in the global arms marketplace, with countries like the U.S. and Russia out-exporting the country by rather wide margins (in 2007, for example, Russia exported $4.6 billion worth of arms - four times as much as China. Even Germany out-exported China by 60%). Yet China's foothold in the African marketplace appears to be quite favorable. In Zambia, for instance, China's North Industries Corp. (NORINCO) is allegedly in talks to upgrade Zambia's T-59 tanks engines, armor and fire control systems. The Nigerian air force has been eyeing China's K-8 trainer aircraft (Nigeria imported Chinese J-7 fighters in 2006). Zimbabwe is equipped with Chinese K-8 trainers and J-7 fighters, and in early 2009 was negotiating the purchase of one squadron of FC-1 fighters from. Chinese arms now equip Angola, South Africa, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Kenya... the list goes on and on.
Chinese arms deals appear to be part and parcel of the "oil-for-infrastructure" deals China continues to strike across the continent. In Angola, for instance, arms are sold in exchange for the country's oil. In Zambia, copper is the currency of choice. While some argue that Chinese arms sales to Africa will drop once China acquires a satisfactory supply of natural resources, such claims are highly dubious. What constitutes a "satisfactory supply" for a country with massive energy demands? What's more, it's rather doubtful that China will be so foolish as to bypass a booming export market. If nothing else, the Chinese are exceptionally savvy businessmen, and arms sales to Africa is a brilliant business opportunity. While China may not be supplanting or joining the U.S. and European states as a large supplier of sophisticated arms on a global scale anytime soon, they have seemingly already done so - and continue to do so - in Africa.