Arms Sales to Africa: Beijing’s Reputation at Risk

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 7

China’s involvement in Africa has attracted increasing criticism from Western and African observers. Particular concern is voiced over China’s willingness to support the continent’s authoritarian regimes—many of which have heinous human rights and governance records—with a no-strings-attached attitude. Compounding these issues have been China’s arms sales to the continent based on what can only be regarded as irresponsible principles that undermine Beijing’s claims that it is qualitatively different from Africa’s previous Western colonizers and exploiters. Consequently, China’s track record in its arms sales to the continent may be regarded as damaging to the continent’s long-term security, as well as the human security of the average African. A number of case studies demonstrate that very often, where a despotic regime stands on one side, facing down its own people, China will invariably be found standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the autocrats.

It has been apparent for some time that Beijing hopes to turn the country’s arms industry into a top arms exporter by 2020. Concerned that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was becoming far too influential in the Chinese economy, in 1998, President Jiang Zemin declared that all businesses were being officially de-linked from the PLA. These were accompanied by the defense industry reforms in 1999, when China divided its top five defense corporations (space, aviation, shipbuilding, conventional arms and nuclear) into ten separate enterprises. Prior to the reforms and the divestment of the PLA’s business operations, China’s military industrial enterprises carried out a “contract responsibility system”—enterprises paid the state both taxes and a segment of their profits. Profits that remained from the production of civilian goods were either reinvested and/or were transferred to the budgets of the military management. With the PLA forced to withdraw from openly operating civilian businesses, however, the search for profits has largely been concentrated in increased arms sales since then. While most major Chinese weapons manufactures are no longer owned by the PLA, but rather by one of the civilian ministries, the remuneration from arms sales continue to return to the Chinese state. In fact, China ostensibly controls all exports of conventional military items, including small arms, in accordance with its Regulations on Control of Military Product Exports [1].

China’s Business is Business

The most notorious example of Beijing’s indiscriminate arms sales has been the arms and security equipment that China has sold to Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, ensuring that Harare is able to maintain its control over the populace. A $240 million deal between China and Zimbabwe is the most obvious example of this. Harare’s defense minister told parliamentarians in June 2004 that the deal included 12 jet fighters and 100 military vehicles [2]. Such purchases are required to replace existing Zimbabwean vehicles and aircraft that are no longer operational due to the Western sanctions that have prevented imports of spare parts and maintenance equipment. The order was kept covert until it was exposed by the state procurement board, which had previously been in charge of Zimbabwe’s $136 million defense budget.

Since then, rumors that Beijing has sold water cannons and cell phone bugging equipment to Harare’s internal security personnel have emerged. In addition, Mugabe’s government is reportedly pursuing legislation (the Interception of Communications Bill) to monitor internet use, with Zimbabwe obtaining China’s infamous expertise and technology to monitor the internet. It should be noted that in 2006, Mugabe told an audience that “We want to remind those who might harbor any plans of turning against the government: be warned, we have armed men and women who can pull the trigger…The defense forces have benefited from the government’s Look East policy through which they have not only acquired new equipment, but also learned new military strategies” (Business Day [Johannesburg] August 16, 2006). As Mugabe’s regime comes under increasing pressure from the opposition movement, Chinese arms and equipment are likely to be seen with greater frequency on the streets of Zimbabwe.

Elsewhere, China has come under the scrutiny of human rights groups over its arms sales to other African countries suffering from ongoing conflict. Amnesty International said in its June 2006 report that China’s relations with Sudan have adversely affected the human rights situation in the country. Arms deliveries from China to Sudan have included ammunition, tanks, helicopters and fighter aircraft and many of these weapons have been used by Khartoum and pro-state militias to commit massive atrocities in both southern Sudan and Darfur. Chinese-supplied aircraft have been used to launch bombing raids on villages, conduct reconnaissance prior to attacks and ferry ground troops [3]. Amnesty also reported that in 1996, Beijing supplied Z-6 troop-carrying helicopters, while in 2001, a Chinese company repaired Sudan’s Mi-8 helicopters . Chinese military trucks, used in attacks on villages, have also been spotted in Sudan. In fact, the UN Panel of Experts investigating arms embargo violations in Sudan documented that Dong Feng military trucks were stored at the Port of Sudan and similar vehicles were observed in Darfur at a Sudanese air force base [4].

It has also been reported that Chinese weapons have been traded in exchange for Liberian timber, in contravention of the then-UN arms embargo on Liberia. Such sales helped shore up warlord Charles Taylor until his ignominious flight into exile in August 2003. Nigeria has likewise turned to China for military supplies to protect its oil fields after Washington was tardy in its response to the decreasing security situation in the Niger Delta (Financial Times, February 27, 2006). The Nigerian government was disappointed by Washington’s reluctance to provide more support; Nigeria had requested 200 boats to guard the Delta. Washington, although offering military technical assistance and training, has so far provided only four old coastal patrol boats. The United States’ reluctance is explained by its anxiety over the corruption within Nigeria’s security forces and the widespread human rights violations committed by the Nigerian military. Nigerian security forces have been responsible for “politically motivated killings; the use of lethal force against suspected criminals and hostage-seizing militants in the Niger Delta; beatings and even torture of suspects, detainees, and convicts; and extortion of civilians,” as well as “child labor and prostitution, and human trafficking” (, March 12).

China’s Arms Policy

Beijing proposes three guiding principles in its international arms transfer policy. First, the exports should boost the legitimate self-defense needs of any recipient. Second, the sales should not damage regional and/or international peace and stability. And third, China should not interfere in the domestic affairs of recipient countries. The inherent problem with such a policy, however, is that in Africa, it is often difficult to determine who or what constitutes a legitimate government. In many African countries, power is fundamentally dependent upon “capturing” the state—or at least being linked favorably to those within the state. Therefore, in many places where China conducts arms sales, Beijing is often dealing with governments that are little more than glorified kleptocracies and quasi-states whose principal aim is ensuring the survival and enrichment of the elite. For instance, while Mugabe’s government may indeed be officially recognized at the United Nations, can Chinese policymakers state that the self-defense needs of an oppressive government, such as the one found in Harare, are indeed legitimate? And as Zimbabwe’s denouement continues, are Chinese arms sales to the country not damaging to the regional stability of southern Africa? Finally, in places such as Zimbabwe or Sudan, is it credible for Beijing to claim that humanitarian abuses and gross violations of human rights are simply domestic affairs that cannot and should not be commented upon?

The Bottom Line

To be certain, China is hardly the only arms exporting country guilty of weapons sales to repressive African countries. Arms exports from China pale in significance to those of the United States, and are even less than those of Russia, France or Britain. Indeed, under Tony Blair, British arms sales to Africa have quadrupled and many exports have involved the selling of arms to authoritarian states on the continent with poor human rights records. Yet, elements of the civil society in many of these Western countries have actively engaged their governments in order to influence policies and arms export regulations toward such countries. Such groups are non-existent in China and consequently, there is little pressure upon Beijing to adopt more responsible policies regarding its arms sales abroad. Compounding this challenge is the fact that China has refused to sign any multilateral agreements governing arms sales, and Beijing’s policies remain arguably ambiguous, stymieing effective regulation and control of its arms exports. That China does not publish information about its arms exports—and last submitted data to the UN Register on Conventional Arms covering its exports in 1996—makes China’s arms sales activities highly opaque and all the more suspicious. Nevertheless, China’s desire to be recognized as a responsible stakeholder in the international arena and one that is qualitatively distinct from the former colonial powers has made it increasingly sensitive to external criticism and pressure. These aspirations provide the international community with an opportunity to influence China’s behavior regarding arms sales and shape Beijing’s ever-maturing policy toward Africa.


1. A copy of the “Regulations on Control of Military Product Exports” is available online at:

2. “Zimbabwe: Editor Discusses State’s Purchase of Fighter Jets from China,” Johannesburg Radio 702 (English) June 10, 2004.

3. See Amnesty International’s report, “China: Sustaining Conflict and Human Rights Abuses,” available online at:

4. Ibid.