The dragon’s claws


“The Chinese people have risen.” Mao Zedong rose to power in 1949 in a country that was tired, albeit alive, following the long Century of Humiliation. The Great Helmsman united a broken-down nation by militarising it. Sixty years on, China has now become the world’s fifth biggest weapons exporter for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The world’s second greatest economic power is also focused on establishing its military might. Since it began manufacturing state-of-the-art weapons, Beijing has purchased fewer arms and has been selling more and more. China refuses to reveal any official figures on the exports of conventional weapons. The figures made public in March were produced by the Stockholm-based SIPRI think tank, which has been publishing the annual report Trends in International Arms Transfers since 1950. The Swedish researchers maintain that the Chinese sell arms mainly to Pakistan, China’s long-standing ally, fuelling India’s nervousness. Islamabad buys 55% of all the weapons manufactured in China, a trend that shows no sign of slowing.

India isn’t the only Asian country to fear China’s military brawn. New president Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream is heavily slanted towards the military and many are wondering just how strong Xi Jinping’s control over the army is, in light of the recent aggressiveness shown by soldiers involved in territorial disputes. With a military budget that is expected to increase by 10.7% in 2013, the objective is to limit the penetration of the U.S. navy and to strengthen control over the South China Sea as well as the various islands to which Beijing lays claim, yet whose ownership is contested by Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. Last year, for the first time, the State Council called territorial issues a ‘priority interest’ for the Chinese government and this year, too, the defence white paper (published on 17 April) leaves no doubts about the army’s determination to attack “if attacked”.
Pakistan isn’t the only country to buy weapons from the Chinese: from 2008 to 2012, Asia and Oceania received 74% of exports and
Africa 13%. Myanmar, Bangladesh and Venezuela also turn to the Asian giant to purchase defence products.

SIPRI states facts and figures, the increase in weapons exports is a long-term trend; the think tank reported this back in 2010 along
with a drop in imports, partly due to the embargo implemented by Europe after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989.

The growth in exports (+162% from 2008 to 2012) is actually a consequence of the modernisation of the armed forces. China’s main customer does not buy light weapons, but stateof-the-art weapons systems, such as JF-17 fighter planes.

However, the Chinese weapons industry is still dependent to some extent on foreign components, particularly supplies for its fighter
planes. It imports engines from Russia and buys other design products and components from France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the
Ukraine and Germany. The embargo isn’t taken literally: each European country has a different approach. Italy is no exception to this, although our export figures pale into insignificance compared to those of our European cousins.

Is China a warmonger? Following the publication of the SIPRI report, China raised its voice. Beijing answered through its foreign minister
spokesman Hong Lei, who resentfully emphasised the official stance: “China has always adopted a prudent and responsible attitude to weapons exports […] and fully implements the restrictions imposed by international laws”.

“China must never become a death merchant”: in the Seventies, Beijing used this mantra to criticise the embargo on weapons and technologies adopted by Western countries as “leverage for ideological purposes”. At that time, however, Chinese weapons exports were paltry. Things have changed over the last 20 years, as China has bared its claws.