New Delhi: From being one of the biggest importers, China is fast becoming a leading global arms supplier, with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) leading its foray into multiple countries, including Pakistan.
China is also exporting a whole bunch of assault rifles, ammunition, fighter planes and even submarines.
A new research paper on Chinese drone exports — written by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Texas A&M University, with excerpts published by Foreign Affairs — reveals that 18 countries obtained armed drones from 2011 to 2019. Eleven of these countries bought the drones from China, the paper states.
Prior to 2011, just three countries had armed drones — the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel.
“The rapid rise in drone deployment has coincided with China’s emergence as a major supplier,” the research paper says. “From 2011 to 2019, 11 of those 18 countries we tracked bought armed drones from China.”
It adds that at least as early as 2011, China started negotiating with countries such as the UAE and Pakistan to sell them armed UAVs.
“Since then, China has dominated the export market for armed UAVs. Of the 18 countries that have acquired armed drones since 2010 (not including China), 11 have bought from China,” it says, adding that the countries include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Uzbekistan, among others.
The United States, the paper adds, just supplied drones to France during this period, while it is in negotiations with India to sell armed predator drones.
A significant aspect of the research paper is that it comes to the conclusion that non-democracies were over four times more likely to pursue armed drones than democracies after China entered the armed drone export market.
China not a signatory to MTCR
What helps China in export of armed drones is that, unlike the US, it is not a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) that came into being in 1987, during the Cold War, to prevent the spread of missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction.
According to the MTCR, the US and other signatories cannot export Category I systems — those that can travel more than 300 km and carry a payload of more than 500 kg.
A March 2020 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a Sweden-based organisation that offers data and analysis on arms trade, stated that even though China claims it follows the MTCR, Beijing imposes relatively fewer restrictions on how buyers use the weapons they import — even if doing so violates international law and human rights.
China firms among top 10 arms exporters
Drones, however, aren’t the only weapons that the Chinese are exporting.
Another report by SIPRI suggests that three of the world’s top 10 arms companies are Chinese.
“We can with confidence say that China is the second-largest arms producer in the world, behind the US and ahead of Russia,” Nan Tian, co-author of the report, was quoted as saying by the Japan Times.
According to the first SIPRI report, China emerged as the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter in 2015–19 and accounted for 5.5 per cent of total arms exports.
The report adds that the number of countries to which China delivers arms has also grown significantly: From 40 in 2010–14 to 53 in 2015–19. Pakistan was the main recipient (35 per cent) in 2015–19, as it has been for all five-year periods since 1991, it states.
China exports arms into Indian neighbourhood
According to intelligence inputs, Pakistan is getting at least four latest versions of Chinese armed drones for protection of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Besides this, China is also supplying Pakistan with eight new conventional (diesel) submarines. The two countries jointly manufacture the JF-17 fighter planes and Pakistan receives Chinese assault rifles.
When it comes to India’s neighbourhood, China supplies weapons to all countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
According to the US-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, most of Beijing’s arms exports are sold to countries closer to home.
“Despite low levels of arms exports throughout the mid-1990s and into the mid-2000s, most of what China did export (82.8 per cent) were shipped to countries across Asia,” it said.
“This trend has continued as China has emerged as a leader in the global arms trade,” it added. “A combined 61.3 per cent of China’s conventional weapons sales since 2008 have found their way to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Other Asian countries have purchased an additional 14 per cent of Chinese arms.”
Chinese arms supplies a concern for India
Former Army chief General V.P. Malik (Retd) said the arms supplied by China to Pakistan were a concern. He added that, during the Kargil battle of 1999, there were reports that small flying objects were seen near the Line of Control (LoC).
“At that time, drones were not something that we had in mind and hence we could not say for sure what they were,” he said.
Former Navy chief Admiral Prakash (Retd) echoed Gen Malik’s views. “The biggest customers of Chinese arms are in India’s neighbourhood,” Admiral Prakash said. “This includes Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. And then beyond the immediate neighbourhood but still significant.”
He explained that the reason why India cannot get out of Russian influence is that “we, as a country, are beholden to them since 60-70 per cent of military equipment is from that country”.
“When you supply arms to a country, you are buying yourself a lot of influence there too and not just selling equipment,” he said, adding that some of the markets in India’s immediate neighbourhood are those where “we should have had a play and hence the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) must question itself”.
Former director general (artillery) Lt Gen P. Ravi Shankar (Retd), an officer who has been part of the induction of every drone in the Army since 2000, said the fact that China is exporting armed drones should be a concern to India because the country does not have one.
“What China is exporting is basic armed drones but I believe they have the capability and the technology for bigger armed drones that they themselves use,” said the officer, who is now associated with the IIT-Madras’ drone UAV programme.