Beijing has become one of the largest weapons exporters in the world, allowing it to gain new allies and place its pawns strategically throughout the continent.
HONG KONG — Last week, China's ambassador to the Phillipines, Zhao Jinhua, delivered 3000 assault rifles to Manila during a ceremony at the Philippine Army headquarters. At the end of June, Beijing had already offered the archipelago a shipment of arms worth $7.3 million. The police and the army will use this to combat Muslim militants and as part of a vast anti-drug campaign that has already left more than 13,000 dead.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. "China is now one of the five biggest arms exporters in the world, just behind the United States, Russia and France," notes Siemon Wezeman, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who researched the subject. Between 2011 and 2015, China sold military equipment to 37 countries, and 75% of these exports went to Asia or Oceania. Pakistan has received the lion's share (35%), followed by Bangladesh (20%) and Burma (16%).
More recently, Beijing has amassed new clients: Thailand's army got its first delivery of 28 Chinese tanks in October. They have also ordered submarines and infantry vehicles. Last November, Malaysia bought four patrol ships, worth $277 million. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos are also clients of the Chinese military industry.
This industry has experienced spectacular growth. "The investments approved by Beijing in this domain have gone from $21 billion in 1988 to $215 billion in 2015, making it the second largest spender after the United States," says Siemon Wezeman. "Technologically, their arms are now in the same league as those of the Americans or the Russians."
Beijing has not had trouble finding clients. Chinese arms are inexpensive and their purchase often leads to technology transfer or loans. A Chinese combat drone is worth $1 million, four times less than its American equivalent. The weapons are also delivered without conditions. If Manila welcomed the Chinese assault rifles with such readiness, it is because the U.S. Congress had refused to sell the Philippines arms, fearing that they would be used to commit human rights abuses.
Furthermore, buying arms from Beijing ensures Chinese support in case of conflict. Cambodia, Laos and Burma, all very isolated diplomatically, have notably benefited from this. "The United States has neglected Asia in recent years, because they were cornered by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," notes Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. This created a vacuum that China has filled."
Beijing is also reaping the benefits. In Southeast Asia, China is seeking allies to support its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The most spectacular turnaround came from the Philippines, which, after denouncing China's claim on a string of contested islands before an international court at The Hague, now seems ready to forget everything in exchange for its gifts.
"In South Asia, the sale of arms to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka has allowed Beijing to grow its influence in India's backyard," adds Koh. "India is now completely surrounded by its great rival's military allies.