China is the world’s fastest-growing arms exporter—thanks to the nations surrounding India

Pakistani soldiers test anti-aircraft weaponry.
Pakistani soldiers test anti-aircraft weaponry.
Image: Reuters/Zmeyev
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China is getting more adept at making and selling weaponry. The nation led growth in major arms exports in the 2011-2015 period, with weapons sales rising 88% from the previous five-year span, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Its share of global arms exports now puts China ahead of France, Germany, and the UK.

Most of China’s exports were to the nations surrounding India. Its biggest client was Pakistan, which received 35% of China’s arms exports, followed by Bangladesh at 20%. Myanmar came in third at 16%.

Pakistan has been rapidly building up its military arsenal, including a host of tiny nuclear weapons, thanks in part to support and exports from China. China has been Bangladesh’s major military supplier for many years, thanks to the cheaper price of China’s weapons and the loans Beijing is willing to make to the Bangladesh government for the purchases. Myanmar’s military government relied heavily on China during years of Western sanctions, but the relationship is being reevaluated under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership.

Some analysts believe China’s ties in the region will isolate India both militarily and economically. China and Pakistan have long been allied in what observers believe is a partnership to destabilize India.

Japan could eventually steal China’s third-place standing behind the US and Russia. In April 2014 prime minister Shinzo Abe overturned a ban on arms exports established after World War Two. That’s already led to some contracts, but Japan’s real emergence as an arms exporter should happen in the years ahead.

Ironically Beijing’s current militarization of the South China Sea helps Japan with its sales pitch. Late last year Tokyo announced it would sell defense equipment and technology to the Philippines, which is challenging Beijing’s territorial claims through an international tribunal.

Beijing will be particularly rankled if Japan wins one of the biggest defense contracts to come along in years: supplying Australia with a new submarine fleet, a deal worth about $34 billion. Recently Beijing suggested that ordering the subs from Japan would amount to forming a quasi military alliance, and reminded Canberra of Japan’s aggression in World War Two.

But Australia, like much of Asia, is more concerned about China’s current aggression.