China’s Arms Sales Philosophy in the Arab World

The United States remains the largest arms dealer in the Middle East, but over the past four decades China has emerged as a “Plan B” to meet arms demand in the region. Al Saud discusses how China’s win-win approach to economic diplomacy has bolstered its arms trade and argues that the Arab World may have found a willing partner for years to come.

Latifa A. Al Saud
December 03, 2018

China’s role as an arms exporter to the Arab world is among the many uncertainties tainting Chinese foreign policy, due to the secretive nature of arms deals. China is the world’s third largest exporter of arms, behind the United States and Russia, representing around 6.2% of global trade for conventional major arms. In the Middle East, China currently ranks fifteenth on the arms suppliers list, while the U.S. remains the largest provider. As China continues to foster its approach of economic diplomacy in the region, many states are becoming increasingly attracted to using China as a “Plan B” for arms supply, filling in any blockage of arms sales from the US or Europe. Unlike the US and Russia, Chinese arms deals have traditionally focused on commercial, rather than political purposes. Despite this, the growing influence of China on the world stage begs the question as to what strategic role Chinese arms sales will play in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

This article analyzes China’s role as an arms exporter to the Arab world since the 1980s and argues that the Chinese approach to arms sales will remain focused on commercial, rather than political reasons. These arms sales have become an increasingly attractive option to the states in the region, especially in times of need, and also represent Xi Jinping’s attempt at win-win, cooperation-based approach to foreign policy. These sales will continue despite the slim chance that (and/or perhaps unwillingness) by China to replace US arms sales in the region, given the former’s five-fold deficit in global annual sales compared to the US and the more advanced military technology that the US offers. Despite the limited availability of precise numbers on Chinese arms sales, scholars and policymakers can look to official Chinese government documents that illustrate its overall arms export strategy in the Middle East. These include the recent Arab Policy Paper, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (FPPC), and the official arms sales justifications and statements provided by the government.

The Arab Policy Paper — the first one ever to be released publicly by the government in 2016 — shows China’s new approach to Chinese-Arab relations and serves a basis to understand its broader Middle East strategy. The paper refers to the importance of pursuing a “new type of international relations” in the Arab world that promotes “win-win cooperation and win-win strategy.” The document also lays out the government’s vision to implement concrete steps to enhance Sino-Arab military cooperation and support the Arab states’ national defense and military forces. The FPPC is illustrative of China’s approach to military arms sales and President Xi Jinping’s pursuit of a win-win foreign policy. The key principles outlined in the document, including mutual respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference, peaceful co-existence, and benefits, speak directly to its arms sales strategy.

In 2016, in a speech to the Arab League in Cairo, Xi Jinping further reinforced the Chinese position, stating that China will “build a cooperative partnership network for win-win outcomes. In 2014, after Saudi Arabia confirmed its purchase of DF-21 missiles from China, the Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson stated that China’s arms exports are based on three principles: “Strengthening the defensive capabilities of the importers, not harming world or regional peace, security and stability, and not interfering in other states’ internal affairs.”[i] Upholding such principles are not only beneficial to China, but also attractive to the recipient states, which often adopt similar rhetoric in foreign affairs. For example, Saudi and Emirati official statements have typically echoed the same principles to justify any arms purchase, whether from the United States, Russia, China, or others.

Based on this win-win outlook, China’s arms sales policy to Arab states is conducted primarily for economic reasons. When mutually beneficial, dealing with China may be an attractive alternative that is perhaps less likely to involve political strings, complications, or potential repercussions that typically accompany arms deals with the US.  For example, U.S. arms sales and economic/military aid to Egypt is primarily intended to exert influence on the Egyptian government to promote American priorities, including Egypt’s peace with Israel. For the US, arms sales are in part an exercise of influence and reward to ensure loyalty, which can be cut off or suspended, depending on the political dynamics and U.S. policy preference.

Contrary to the U.S. approach, Chinese arms sales are focused on “business only and business first.” China sees the Arab world and the Middle East as a whole as a new market for its low-cost high-tech weapons and thus has an appetite to sell weapons to any state in the region, regardless of its policies. China uses its role as a leading oil importer as leverage (for example, it threatened to decrease oil imports from Saudi Arabia over a price issue) and has rarely used arms sales, or the threat to cut them off, as a political tool. For example, it sells weapons to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are not on the same page when it comes to regional issues. There are, however, exceptions to this general rule, including China’s position against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and current issues of national security that would naturally preclude it from arms sales (e.g., Taiwan). For example, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the U.S., Pakistan, and China sold arms including stingers and missiles to the Mujahedeen, who were resisting Soviet influence. In 1975, after the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, China and the U.S. supplied arms to counter the Soviet supported Vietnamese government.

Compared to annual value of arms sales by the U.S., EU, and Russia, China’s operation in the Middle East is small. The U.S. is the largest arms exporter to the Middle East and the world and will likely remain so due to its advanced technology, hegemony of the international system, control over oil market and access, and strong ties with the Arab world, specifically the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Nearly half of U.S. arms exports go the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia ranking as the second largest importer of U.S. arms. China is among the top arms exporters, but its main clients tend to be its surrounding neighbors such as Pakistan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

However, there has been a substantial increase in China’s military spending and arms industry and production, that may continue to spark Chinese exports to the region. China’s arms exports increased by 74% year-over-year in 2012, as China sold $753 million in arms to the Middle East, compared to U.S. sales of $28.5 billion. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Chinese arms exports “nearly doubled over the past five years, and China’s arms imports decreased by 25 percent.”  Continued technological improvements along with successful cooperation between China and Gulf countries will promote increased arms sales in the region for decades to come.

Despite the slim chance that China threatens the United States’ status as the number one arms exporter in the region, Chinese “arms sales will definitely surge in the years to come” due to high demand and spending by Arab states. According to SIPRI, Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have some of the fastest growing military budgets in the world. Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia’s defense budget increased from $27.1 billion (2010) to $56 billion (2018), which represents 10% of its GDP. The UAE has a $22.8 billion annual defense budget, representing 6% of its GDP. Recently, the UAE expressed  interest in China’s Pterosaurs-1 UAV, which has the capability to carry BA-7 and YZ-212 missiles, while Saudi Arabia purchased Chinese missiles and signed an agreement to build a manufacturing facility of drones in the Kingdom.

Another factor that may contribute to increased Chinese arms sales is U.S. unwillingness to sell certain types of weaponry to certain countries in certain situations, often depending on domestic political power and/or domestic pressure. For Arab states, China can serve as a “Plan B,” something China can exploit to its own economic advantage. For example, China’s 1988 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) sale to Saudi Arabia resulted from U.S. unwillingness to do so because of Israeli opposition. This event, at least within the GCC, set the precedent for Arab and specifically GCC states that China can play an increasingly important role in filling a selective vacuum left by the US for arms sales in the region. In 2015, China sold armed drones to the Kingdom after the Obama administration blocked drone sales because of the war in Yemen. The US has sold its armed drones only to Italy and the United Kingdom, whereas China has sold them to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and the UAE. China has also sold weapons to non-U.S. allies, including Sudan, Syria, and Iran.

China’s commercial motives do not suggest a complete lack of interest in influencing the region and maintaining political stability. China is the world’s largest oil importer of Saudi oil, and as such, stability in the Middle East is critical to China. Chinese arms sales to the region is arguably motivated to maintain oil flows from friendly leaders from Arab oil exporting states and a necessary tool for China to foster and enhance energy ties. It is no coincidence that the major oil exporting countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran, are all purchasing weapons from China. The commercial nature of Chinese arms sales gives it short-term and long-term advantages. Commercially, arms sales not only foster stronger economic ties with Arab states, to which China remains dependent on their oil exports, but also give China a chance to ask for a decrease in the cost of importing energy from the region. China has the ability to use arms sales as leverage to receive low oil prices and/or concessions, an important tool given its significant growth in oil demand and dependency on imports.

U.S. and Western policymakers and scholars view increased Chinese arms sales to the region as not merely economically motivated, but also intended for China’s own power projection and mitigation of U.S. power in the region.  China often criticizes U.S. interference in Middle East affairs, including the strong presence of U.S. forces in the Gulf (and beyond). The primary objectives for the US, from China’s view, are to maintain, control, and ensure access to energy resources in the region. Chinese actions to cooperate with both U.S. and non-U.S. allies, like Iran and Syria, are intended to, at least in part, exert its own influence. In 1991, the Chinese provided Iran with sophisticated dual use nuclear technology and natural uranium under the umbrella of nuclear “cooperation.” This, among other factors, allowed China to build up its image as an attractive and easy to deal with arms provider, serving an entry point to its long-term strategic presence without appearing to have an interest in picking sides.

Arms sales are part of China’s win-win cooperation and strategy-based foreign policy. Doing so is a rather unconventional approach to international arms sales, as they have traditionally been used as a political tool, with the United States as the top player. China’s approach can help its long-term strategic posture in the region by promoting stronger ties with the Arab states, ensuring oil flows, and opening a door to economic expansion in the Middle East through investments and Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs).

Although there are no recent instances of China using arms sales to exert influence in the Middle East, this does not mean that the commercial nature of Chinese arms sales is not also linked to national security interests. The Chinese government’s arms exports philosophy stems from its interest to maintain strategic relations with the Arab states in order to best increase its prospects for securing its business and energy interests in the region, regardless of the recipients’ country’s intensions. It can therefore be said that PRC arms sales are exemplified in Xi Jinping’s overall win-win, cooperation-based foreign policy and can in turn have key implications to understanding the global arms trade of this century.

Latifa A. Al Saud is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. She specializes in International Relations and her research interests focus on the political and security factors of East Asia-Middle East relations. 


[i] “There Exists Puzzles on China’s Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, and It’s Different from the On- Line Report,” Global Times, September 22, 2014.