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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 13:04 GMT 14:04 UK
Buyers line up for China's arms
By Tim Luard

China may have lost its reputation for making low-cost goods, but when it comes to weapons, there is no doubt which end of the market its sights are still set on.

A Chinese salesman with a customer at a defence exhibition in Beijing in April 2006
Amnesty says China's arms exports fuel conflicts
Some of the poorest and most unsavoury regimes on earth, which either cannot afford or are not allowed to buy sophisticated Western arms, are turning to the world's newest superpower to buy guns, leg-irons, anti-riot equipment and armoured vehicles.

Military specialists contacted by the BBC News website have confirmed the main findings of a report issued this week by Amnesty International, which said Chinese arms sales were fuelling conflicts and human rights abuses in countries such as Sudan and Burma.

China has been the Burmese military government's main supplier of weapons - including artillery, trucks, logistical support and communications equipment - ever since the 1990s, according to Tim Huxley, an Asia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"Without Chinese arms supplies, the Burmese army would find it impossible to operate," he said.

China has also become a major, and perhaps the largest, supplier of weapons to Sudan, where its sales include fighter aircraft and helicopters, according to analysts.

The key question in Sudan, they say, is to what extent alleged war crimes in Darfur are dependent on these supplies.

Presidential guards in Juba, southern Sudan 6 August 2005
China is one of Sudan's major sources of weapons
China has used the threat of its Security Council veto to stall or dilute UN resolutions on Darfur, saying the situation in Sudan is an internal affair.

While the US maintains partial sanctions against Sudan, China has become the country's biggest trading partner, taking most of its oil exports.

Small scale

While there has been much debate on China's alleged transfer of nuclear or long-range missile technology to countries like Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, little attention has been paid to its routine export of conventional weapons and small arms.

Before it started introducing capitalist-style economic reforms in 1978, China gave arms as free military aid to governments and revolutionary groups seen as supporting its interests.

It's the country of choice when you want to buy cheap and simple weapons - like Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery shells
Paul Beaver,
defence analyst

As its new-found economic might has helped extend its reach and influence, arms sales have become an integral part of China's trade links in Asia, Africa and Latin America, according to Amnesty's report.

Some might say this is all part of being a successful capitalist country. China is already flooding the world with its goods of all kinds, so why not arms too?

Many also point out that Chinese arms exports are tiny compared with those of the United States. They are also smaller than those of Russia, France or Britain.

And the value of Chinese arms sales has in fact shrunk in the past 20 years from $2bn a year to about $1bn, mainly due to Russian competition and the poor performance of Chinese weapons in the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars in the 1980s and 90s.

'Cheap and simple'

Today, while Western nations tend to sell integrated weapons systems, China produces the kind of weapons they do not make any more, says Paul Beaver, a London-based defence analyst.

"It's the country of choice when you want to buy cheap and simple weapons - like Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery shells.

"China's export policy is that it will supply any country and any sovereign government. The problem is that some have arms embargoes on them," he said.

Nepalese soldiers arrest an activist at a pro-democracy rally on 21 January 2006
The Nepalese security forces have been accused of rights violations

China, like other countries, does have a policy on export controls, but this is usually whatever is in the interests of the government, said Beaver.

While Chinese handguns and security devices such as electric batons are sold in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia on a purely commercial basis, China is also known to supply arms at "friendship prices".

It is especially interested in selling to countries with energy supplies. But there are often other strategic factors involved - as in Nepal and Burma, where China is competing for influence with India.

Derek Mitchell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says China has used arms sales not only to open new markets and extract natural resources, but also to help provide capital to its defence industry at a time when the military was being forced to give up its own commercial activities.

China's other main aim, he says, is "to demonstrate its credential as a friend of nations in the developing world in ways that can bear fruit in international institutions such as the UN, and that can be leveraged against US power globally".

Government-controlled

He shares Amnesty's view that China often ignores the impact its arms sales can have on the internal affairs of troubled states.

In Nepal, for example, a deal to supply nearly 25,000 Chinese rifles and 18,000 grenades came at a time when the security forces were involved in suppressing thousands of civilian demonstrators. Sometimes China has even provided assistance to both sides in a conflict, as with Eritrea and Ethiopia, added Mitchell.

He dismissed suggestions that the blame lies with Chinese arms companies acting independently.

"One must hold the government responsible because all arms merchants and weapons dealers in China are government-controlled," he said.

There are few multilateral controls on conventional weapons and China does not operate under the same restraints as most democratic countries, where arms deals tend to be much more transparent and subject to public scrutiny, say analysts.

China's official news agency carried a denial of Amnesty's charges. Chinese specialists contacted by the BBC for this article declined to comment. One simply said he wanted "no connection" with Amnesty International.

But China is keen to be viewed as a responsible world power. And while the US and other governments are concerned about its rising military spending, rights activists are hoping it will soon move to the higher, more strictly monitored end of the arms market - just as it is already doing in other areas, from clothing to computers.

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