US arms exports skyrocket, while China’s nosedive – DW – 03/13/2023

While the rest of the world is slowly disarming, Europe is quickly doing the opposite, according to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The institute examines and compares the global arms trade in four-year periods, to better reflect overall trends rather than looking at the weapons business over only 12 months.

Among the two most important trends in the latest report, SIPRI researcher Pieter Wezeman told DW, are that arms transfers to European states have significantly increased” and that “the role of the US as an arms supplier in the world has increased significantly, too.”

In the most recent period, 2018-22, the international arms trade declined by just over 5% compared to 2013-17. By contrast, arms imports by European countries — the vast majority of which came from the United States — increased by 47%, and those by European NATO countries by as much as 65%. The reason behind that is, unsurprisingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine gets most Western weapons systems, like the German-made Leopard 2 main battle tank, for freeImage: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

US ups exports to Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Japan

In the past, Ukraine was not a major player in the international arms trade. It made much of its defense equipment domestically, and the rest was left over from the Soviet era. In SIPRI’s latest report, however, the country ranks 14th on the list of worldwide weapons importers. Considering 2022 alone, Ukraine comes in third.

SIPRI usually refers to “arms transfers” in its report, meaning both the arms trade and free military assistance, the latter of which is Ukraine’s main supply of weapons. This kind of military aid usually consists of older equipment or surplus stock from donor nations.

The report shows how, because of this, what has been delivered to Ukraine pales in a value comparison to new weapons sales. For example, despite massive US arms deliveries to Ukraine last year, Washington still sent goods worth greater value to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Japan. Those four countries, in particular, bought new and sophisticated equipment such as fighter jets, something Ukraine has been urgently requesting from Western allies.

Submarines are one of Germany’s top exports in the field of armamentsImage: Joerg Waterstraat/SULUPRESS.DE/picture alliance

France gains, Germany loses

The five biggest arms exporters are, in order, the US, Russia, France, China and Germany. While this ranking hasn’t shifted since the last report, there have been significant changes with regard to data from the individual countries.

For example, the US, already top of the list, has increased exports by another 14% and now accounts for 40% of global arms transfers.

A much bigger increase of 44% was recorded by France, which was able to expand its third-place position. Such sharp changes are not unusual, however, according to SIPRI, because there can be particularly large and lucrative orders within a given time frame.

This is also how Pieter Wezeman explained the sharp drop in the German defense business, at 35% less than in the previous report. But, said Wezeman, this time, “the change in the arms exports by France is maybe more structural in nature. France has put a lot of emphasis on trying to support its arms industry and has clearly succeeded in doing so in the past decade.”

This was clearly on the mind of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a recent visit to India. Western powers are trying to encourage New Delhi to rely less on Russia for arms. While France has spent years establishing itself as India’s second biggest supplier after Moscow, Germany currently does not play a role in Indian arms imports.

Germany does not export arms to India, though Chancellor Scholz (left) may hope to change thatImage: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

China left out of major arms markets

Also striking is the 23% dip in Chinese arms exports and, in general, China’s low importance as a global arms exporter compared to its economy as a whole.

“China has not succeeded to break into some of the major markets for arms, sometimes for clearly political reasons,” explained Wezeman. As a result, he said, China does not sell arms to its rival, India, for example.

“Surprisingly enough,” he added, China also “hasn’t really succeeded in competing against European and US arms suppliers to most of the Middle Eastern states, especially the Arab states.”

Russia surpasses China in African arms exports

As Europe began importing more weapons, its share of international arms transfers likewise increased, from 11% in 2013-17 to 16% in 2018-22. At the same time, arms transfers declined in all other regions of the world.

One of the most extreme cases was in Africa, where transfers went back by 40%. But that hasn’t made the continent more peaceful, said Wezeman.

There are still numerous armed conflicts across the continent. However, he said, these “countries are not able to really afford large numbers of advanced arms, and therefore in that sense, total arms transfer value to the region is not as high as the number of conflicts would maybe suggest.”

Russia’s influence in Africa has been growing since the French troop withdrawal from Mali in 2022Image: Florent Verges/AFP

In sub-Saharan Africa, Russia has now surpassed China as the biggest arms supplier — particularly with its push into Mali. The Sahel nation used to purchase arms from a host of countries, including France and the United States. However, after the 2020/21 coups in Mali, these two Western countries began to significantly shrink their business in the country, while Russia expanded its sales.

Another example of the consequences of political upsets for arms cooperation — in a different region — is Turkey. The NATO member was the seventh-largest buyer of US defense equipment in 2013-17. But as the relationship between Ankara and Washington has become more strained, Turkey now only ranks 27th.

Future orders serve as a forecast

Who will be leading the international arms business in the future? To find out, SIPRI looked at the order books of manufacturers in the most important arms-exporting countries. Particular attention was paid to orders for combat aircraft and helicopters, as well as for larger warships such as aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and submarines, weapons systems of particularly high value.

Based on these orders, the US will remain by far the world’s biggest arms supplier. This is clear from the fact that around 60% of all combat airplanes and helicopters ordered worldwide are US products. In 2022 alone, 13 countries ordered a total of 376 combat airplanes and helicopters from US-based manufacturers.

France has both many aircraft and many ship orders, and is thus likely to further increase its position as an arms exporter. The outlook for Germany is mixed. There are no existing orders for German aircraft, but there are a large number of naval vessels currently being made in German shipyards.

Russia, the world’s second-most important manufacturer, has relatively few orders on the books at the moment. Many weapons that might otherwise have been exported are needed in its ongoing war in Ukraine.

This article was originally written in German.

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2023-03-13 13:17:04