Pakistan accounted for 55 percent of Chinese arms exports between 2008 and 2012, according to SIPRI. During that time, China’s share of global arms exports rose to 5 percent from 2 percent during 2003 to 2007, boosting the country from eighth to fifth place in the global ranking.
“Military exports are one way for China to increase its international status,” said Li Hong, secretary general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. “China needs to increase its influence in regional affairs, and from that perspective it needs to increase weapons exports further.”
Chinese defense spending is now second only to U.S. military outlays. At current growth rates, Chinese spending could catch up with the United States, which accounts for more than 45 percent of global military spending, by as early as 2025.
For now, however, Chinese exports lag behind other countries with much smaller populations and economies. The U.S share of global conventional arms exports is 30 percent. Russia, meanwhile, accounts for 26 percent, German exports constitute 7 percent and France, 6 percent.
The rapid expansion in Beijing’s military budget in recent years and a focus on technological advances have raised the sophistication and competitiveness of Chinese weapons. This allowed China to cut the volume of its weapons imports in half between 2008 and 2012, compared with the 2003 to 2007 period, when it was the world’s largest importer of conventional weapons.
From 2008 to 2012, China ranked second behind India, with 69 percent of all Chinese weapons imports originating in Russia. China’s rising influence and military spending have led to growing apprehension in Asia and helped spur large increases in military budgets throughout the region.
India has grown increasingly nervous of China’s rising economic and military power in recent years. Indian leaders say they feel threatened both along the land border between the two — where China claims swaths of Indian territory — and at sea.
Indians say this vulnerability, coupled with the undeveloped state of Indian industry, justify India’s status as the world’s biggest weapons importer. According to SIPRI, India accounted for 12 percent of all conventional arms imports between 2008 and 2012, which was more than double the Chinese purchases of arms from overseas.
“You may not see a conflict between the two sides, but there’s a lot of wariness,” said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow at India’s Observer Research Foundation.
Manoj Joshi, an Indian defense commentator, said 70 percent of Chinese arms exports were going to India’s neighbors in south Asia. The second-largest recipient after Pakistan was Burma, which accounted for 8 percent of the total, followed by Bangladesh.
Rajagopalan said Chinese incursions into Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh had increased in both depth and number, reaching 150 to 200 incidents per year. “You are seeing a lot more assertiveness on their side,” she said.
Beijing argues that its growing military prowess is defensive in nature and that its expanding defense budgets are a natural result of rapid economic growth.
“Southeast Asian countries look at China and they see a giant horse, and when a horse lowers its head, of course rats will be scared,” said Dai Xu, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army air force. “But when this horse lowers its head, it is actually just eating its own grass.”
Largely because of China’s increased budget, Asian countries spent more on defense in 2012 than European nations for the first time, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Last week, IISS said in a report that Chinese defense spending rose 8.3 percent in real terms in 2012 from a year earlier, while spending increased nearly 5 per cent for Asia as a whole.
In a climate of austerity, nominal defense spending among European NATO members shrank last year to 2006 levels. European arms imports fell 20 percent between 2008 and 2012, compared with 2003 to 2007, according to SIPRI. During that period, Greece’s imports fell 61 percent, pushing it down from the world’s third-largest arms importer to 15th.
Anderlini reported from Beijing and Mallet from New Delhi. Additional reporting by Gu Yu.