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Chinese Arms Exports: Policy, Players and Process

Authored by Dr. Bates Gill, Mr. Evan S. Medeiros.

July 2000

109 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Global arms proliferation continues to be a key concern for the United States, particularly the export role of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Although China experienced a significant decline in its arms exports in the 1990s (down from the boom times of the 1980s), the PRC provides a significant array of lethal weapons and sensitive defense technologies to states around the world. These exports provide an invaluable means by which to assess the progress and performance of China's military-industrial complex. Moreover, these products may present the very systems and technological know-how that the United States and allied forces will encounter in a future conflict.


It has been nearly 10 years since a comprehensive study has been undertaken to fully assess the trends, processes, and implications of China’s arms exports. For a number of reasons the time is ripe for the present study to take up this subject.

First, over the course of the 1990s, questions of Chinese arms proliferation emerged as a central problem in U.S.-China relations. Second, in spite of this valid continuing concern for U.S. interests, encouraging overall trends in Chinese arms exports principles and practices have resulted in more concrete Chinese unilateral, bilateral, and international commitments to stem its transfers of weapons and technologies on the one hand, coupled with market forces causing a steep overall decline in its major conventional weapons exports over the past 10 years on the other.

Third, far more data, information, and documentation is available today from China on a host of questions relevant to this issue through access to officials, newspapers, policy documents, published regulations, and official statements. These sources—some of which are provided to a wider audience for the first time in this study—offer new insights into the players and process involved in Chinese arms export policy, China’s military-technical relationships abroad, the internal bureaucratic and institutional pressures bearing on arms transfers, the strengths and weaknesses of China’s export control system, and the extent to which Chinese decisionmakers have embraced international nonproliferation principles. Fourth, since late 1997 and early 1998, the Chinese arms production and arms export system has undergone a sweeping reorganization and restructuring process. While the basic outlines of this shake-up are discernible, its implications for future arms exports are less clear and require careful analysis.

Finally, the upshot of these trends points to enduring and legitimate U.S. concerns over Chinese arms exports and proliferation activities. At the very least, this issue will remain a contentious one and will impede progress in the broader effort of the two countries to stabilize their relationship. In addition, in spite of a relative decline in its arms exports overall, China continues to provide sensitive weapons and technology to a range of recipients Washington views with concern: Iran, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Pakistan, and others. There is little doubt that China will employ these types of transfers as a form of leverage in its discussions with U.S. officials on other issues related to areas of concern for China, such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. More importantly, it remains highly likely that U.S. security interests and military forces overseas will continue to confront—both diplomatically and militarily—the challenge posed by Chinese weapons in sensitive regions across Asia and the Middle East.

As a result, it is imperative to gain greater insight into Chinese arms export policies, players, and processes and their implications for U.S. interests. This study tackles these issues in two principal parts. First, in order to set the context of the study, we assess past, present, and future quantitative and qualitative trends in Chinese conventional arms transfers. The second part of the study examines Chinese arms export policy, players, and process in turn. Charts and documents attached as appendices further supplement the work of the study.

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