By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

China is using its Belt & Road Initiative to expand not only its economic, industrial and geopolitical clout but to join the world’s major arms exporters as a global power.

Thus, it isn’t just China’s ‘loan industry,’ as the Belt and Road Initiative has become known among indebted nations, that is thriving but its military-industrial complex as well despite the fact that the trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative ostensibly remains a purely economic venture, bringing ‘benefits’ to all the participant countries.

Two recent reports have, however, shown how China’s arms industry is making huge strides alongside BRI. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on global arms exports and Pentagon’s recent annual report to the U.S. Congress on China’s worldwide military build tell a story that otherwise remains obscured under the ‘economic win-win’ of the BRI.

According to the report of SIPRI, whereas China’s arms exports have been growing at a high rate since 2004, between 2014 and 2018 – when BRI was started – not only did China’s overall arms exports rise by a further 2.7 percent but also expanded across many new countries.

To quote the report, “In 2014-18, China delivered major arms to 53 countries, compared with 41 in 2009-13 and 32 in 2004–2008. Pakistan was the main recipient (37 percent) in 2014-18,” demonstrating how perfectly the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has synched with Pakistan’s ever-increasing arms imports from China ever since 1991.

In addition, according to the US Defense Department’s recently-released Annual Report to Congress: “In 2018, China’s arms sales increased, continuing a trend that enabled China to become the world’s fastest-growing arms supplier during the past 15 years.”

After the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq), “The Indo-Pacific region was China’s second-largest regional arms market, with more than US$8 billion worth of arms sales, more than US$5 billion of which was to Pakistan.”

As far as Africa is concerned, while global overall arms exports decreased between 2013-2017 by almost 22 percent, those of China to the continent, where it has a very deep economic presence with over 30 countries participating in BRI, increased massively by 55 percent from 8.6 percent in 2012 to 17 percent in 2017, a mammoth increase over a period of just five years.

China accounted for 13 percent of Algeria’s arms imports during this period. As far as sub-Saharan African countries are concerned, China accounted for 24 percent of their overall exports. In 2009-13, Ukraine was the biggest supplier. However, Kiev’s arms exports to the region fell massively, by 79 percent, while those of China continue to rise.

Interestingly enough, during the same period, arms exports of China’s two competitors in the field, Russia and the United States, decreased. Russia’s exports to Africa, which are by far still the biggest in relative terms, fell by 32 percent. The US during the same period accounted for only 11 percent of Africa’s total arms imports.

While the story of BRI plus increasing arms exports to BRI countries, such as Pakistan, tells much about the ‘depth’ of their friendship, this story does not end here.

According to the Defense Department’s report, China aims to use the BRI to expand its military reach in the world by developing various military bases. According to the report,  Pakistan is one of the most likely countries around the world where China would build military bases. To quote the report:

“China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries.”

This is deeply linked with the BRI. As the report says, “China’s advancement of projects such as the “One Belt, One Road” Initiative (OBOR) will probably drive military overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security for OBOR projects.”

China accordingly is systematically heading towards greater and deeper military co-operation. In July 2018, for example, according to the Pentagon report, Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe held the first China- Africa Defense Security Forum in Beijing, which included representatives from 49 African countries. The purpose, as explained by the chief of the General staff of Sierra Leone, was to deepen “military ties with China” with the hopes of further “dialogue and cooperation” that “can help enhance exchanges and cooperation with Chinese military.”

Needless to say, Sierra Leone is one of the many African participants of BRI project and needless to say, China’s increasing arms exports to Africa cannot be seen to be separate from the US$130 billion that Africa owes to China in loans, notwithstanding that doors of further loans still remain open as does the possibility of China actually taking countries’ assets in its possession due to their inability to repay.

The Chinese footprint in the world is, therefore, increasing in a way that leaves an economic and military “win-win” only for China, and loans and the burden of payback for the participant countries.