As China Becomes a Top Weapons Exporter, North Korea Issues Linger

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The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute research on arms imports and exports of weapons remains the gold standard in this sort of measurement. The top line news from its new Trends in International Arms Sales 2012 is that China has become the fifth largest exporter, while the United Kingdom was pushed off of that list. The facts tell something worrisome about China’s willingness to sell arms to unstable governments and should cause additional concern about its relationship with North Korea now and in the near future.

The top four exporters have been mainstays of the list for many years — the United States, Russia, Germany and France. America continues it role as the arsenal of democracy, although a significant portion of its exports — 27% — go to allies in the Middle East, where there is barely any democracy at all. The U.S. does particularly well in the export of combat aircraft — 62% by volume.

While U.S. exports go primarily to Europe and the Middle East, the great bulk of exports from the next four nations go elsewhere. The five biggest importers of all arms from 2008 to 2012 were India, China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore. However, for China in particular:

Pakistan — which accounted for 55 per cent of Chinese arms exports — is likely to remain the largest recipient of Chinese arms in the coming years due to large outstanding and planned orders for combat aircraft, submarines and frigates from China. Recent major deals indicate that China is establishing itself as a substantial arms supplier to a growing number of large arms recipients, including Algeria, Morocco and Venezuela.

Looked at through a lens of Pakistan’s activity, China will send arms to a nation that is already embroiled in unstable political activity.

At present, North Korea is not on the list of receivers of China’s exports. But it could be soon, because China is a major supplier already, and the country will need more and more hardware to expand it sinister and destabilizing influence on a region where until recently it got barely a mention.

China has been willing to ship North Korea arms despite an embargo, and these weapons almost certainly have been used to assemble ballistic missiles, which are just the kind of systems that worry the democracies in the region — and the U.S. China’s motivations are hard to guess because the People’s Republic could lose some exports if there are military attacks against the region’s biggest economies, particularly its huge partner Japan.

Whatever China’s reason for helping North Korea, Pakistan may show the way forward — unstable, belligerent and dangerous. The People’s Republic does not care.