The Global Impact of Chinese Arms Exports: Another Aspect of the Korean Crisis

2013-04-14 The North Korean crisis reminds us that the role of Chinese arms exports and technology transfer are already globally significant.

The involvement of China in the proliferation of nuclear technology to Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran is a key element in supporting triangular trade among the emergent nuclear club.  As such, China has already had an impact in shaping new realities in the Second Nuclear Age.


Interestingly, for many European observers the North Korean crisis is something like in Star Wars, a world far, far away and in a time zone of no real relevance.

Chinese foreign spokesman reaffirms Iran’s right to civilian nuclear energy. And where are the Chinese limits on arming Iran? http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/04/11/297646/china-stresses-irans-nuclear-rights/ 

For one European analyst who has analyzed the Korean situation and its impacts, he entitled his piece, out of range, out of mind: Is there a role for Europe in the Korean crisis?”


One could add that Korean nucs and missiles are not exactly out of range for they are part of the triangle trade, and the Iranians are in the learning curve of the Korean crisis, and the Libyan one for that matter.

Shaping military deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age is not a uniquely American problem, which Europe can simply ignore, although it largely is.

And as an aside, when one looks at the distances from North Korea and considers the polar route a different picture of what is at risk emerges (in miles): Anchorage 3,600, Hawaii 4,600, Vancouver BC 4,900, Stockholm 4,500 and Moscow 3,900. [ref]Data provided by Ed Timperlake[/ref] (These are approximate distances from center mass of North Korea to designated location).

The engagement of China in the global export dynamic of nuclear and missile technologies is the most prominent of a broader set of trends underway.  With the growing numbers and sophistication of Chinese military production for their own use, the Chinese are augmenting their capability to export such arms as well, and to use the arms trade for both influence and revenue.

Increasingly, the West is building itself out of a number of global markets, as the sophistication of its weapons built for their own defense and not easily exportable.  The F-35 is a global program, but leaves the market for fighters to others for the developing world, a market in many ways as large as the developed world.  Here the Chinese are developing export products, and support for the period ahead.

We had a chance to discuss with a leading expert on the Chinese military the nature of the evolution of Chinese military exports and their potential global role.  Rick Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, has worked for many years on the analysis of PRC military trends, and we have posted a summary briefing of his look at recent trends as a baseline for this discussion as well as the accompanying piece on the PRC military.

We have gone through a series of Fisher’s briefings and are providing for our readers, a condensed version of Fisher’s assessment of trends and capabilities.

It was clear from his analyses in the briefings that Fisher highlighted the building out of Chinese military power to solidify regional reach in the decade ahead and based on such a foundation would seek to expand that reach in the decade after.

SLD: How would you characterize the period ahead – the next two decades – in terms of the Chinese approach and focus on global arms exports?

Fisher: There is an emerging tsunami wave of broad Chinese export of military capabilities. 

It is a military- industrial colossus not only because of the variety and breadth of offerings, but also because they will be tied to a more developed economic and political strategy of gaining influence, co-opting the elites in all regions of interest to China.  And from strong points in those regions, they are already branching out, working to build political networks that seek to undermine American interests.

And arms sales will serve as reinforcing tools, not only for China and its individual goals and interests, but also in enabling these new Chinese encouraged or abetted  counter-networks to work against the United States, and to work against other Western interests as they can.

SLD: And this is not limited to conventional arms trade.  What is your sense of their engagement in the nuclear related trade?

Fisher: China has been in the center of our WMD technologies proliferation threat for over 30 years.

This has been accomplished not just by direct means but by indirect means; by creating an exchange network between Pakistan, North Korea and Iran as a first level of export transmission belt.  One piece will go to one, which will share it with the rest, or an element will come from outside the loop, it’ll be shared, and the Chinese can add onto that.

And before you know it, we will have a North Korean ICBM, and that same ICBM suddenly comes to be pointed at Europe from Iran.  British Prime Minister David Cameron explicitly cited this very fear of North Korea’s emergent ICBM capability.

SLD: How would characterize the current state of Chinese military technology?

Fisher: They have de facto parity in practically everything except turbine engines.  And that is coming along very quickly.

More troubling is what could quickly emerge in the next generation of military systems.

This could happen in large part due to their pervasive global espionage campaign and as a consequence of their own very intensive investment in developing their own expertise in military technology, which includes the deployment of a virtual army of PhD students around the world to study in all of the best universities, focusing on high tech.

Even if only half of these students return to China, they constitute an enormous transmission belt that digs deeply into a fundamental center of our own sources for innovation.

(For a look at the scientific aspects of the Chinese challenge see the interview with Mark Lewis, former Chief Scientist of the USAF


SLD: In effect you are getting a double bounce.  Technology coming into China and being developed in China will be exported in the form of Chinese weapons to shape global influence and to re-shape military balances in various global regions.

Fisher:  That is a good way to look at it.

Before the end of this decade, they will be able to offer for export practically anything we can offer for export to include ships, planes – transport, ISR, or strike and space systems. 

Every step of their space program is going to be dual use.  And they may beat us to the punch in energy weapons. Electromagnetic rail guns and lasers to begin with and then high-power microwaves, hypersonic platforms are up next.

SLD: If we imagine a world 15-20 years from now, the Chinese are a very significant arms spender and have significant global arms trade reach. It’s a very different world for the Western power, so for India, for that matter.  Or even Russia for that matter.

What we don’t know is how the Chinese regime will then play out that global reach or engagement in affecting the global threat environment. What is downplayed is the global impact of the proliferation of Chinese arms technology. Is that something one should focus on?

Fisher: Absolutely.  Let me give you an example of both the change and the Chinese approach.

I attended Chile’s air show in March 2012.

I was able to speak with a  foreign military official just before the show who relayed an anecdote.  The previous December, the Hugo Chavez-inspired Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) had held their first meeting.  This organization was explicitly designed to exclude the United States and Canada.

What was not reported  was that right after the meeting, the Chinese President Hu Jinato made phone calls to all of the heads of state and congratulated them on the glorious achievement of holding this meeting.

So, here you had the paramount leader of China congratulating the leaders of our own hemisphere for organizing a new movement that would essentially be against the United States.

We are seeing the same process unfold in far bolder manner in Central Asia and Africa, where decades of building economic and political influence has the laid a foundation for introducing military influence, for which arms sales are going to be an important component.

The PRC already is a player in fighter exports and will see their role expand in the period ahead. 

SLD: How should the U.S. and its allies respond to this Chinese effort and trend?

Fisher:  There are two broad responses: one which would lead to better integrated defense and the second to challenge the Chinese directly with regard to the arms transfer behavior.

On the first level, the United States and its allies need to strengthen their mutual defense capabilities. 

What our task ought to be for the end of this decade is to create an ISR network that that is fed by Allied contributions so all can benefit from total continuous real-time coverage of China– everything that flies, floats, hopefully even moves on the ground that can be seen.

And then, back that up with our own varied missile arsenal that we sell as appropriate to our friends and allies to ensure that a Chinese move in any direction can be met with a lethal debilitating broadside that stops them.  Such a system would ensure that the Chinese would have to think twice before they move.

The second is to lead the formulation of “Codes of Conduct” in key “common” and regional domains. 

This could entail leading a process for setting rules for proper behavior for states operating in space, cyber domains and the South China Sea.

These codes have to be started; what’s essential is that consensuses are formed from broad Western shared interests while engaging the Chinese.

The Chinese can help to form the consensus or make it easier for the West to organize their opposition to China as a consequence of their opposition and conduct.

See our earlier discussion with Fisher:


For a book-length study by Fisher on Chinese military modernization see the following:



For our look at interpreting overall Chinese military behavior now and in the period ahead see the following brief: