US far outstrips China in arms sales to dictators

When it comes to arming autocrats in Africa, upstart China is no match for the United States, a study of arms exports finds.

China's sales of weapons to dictatorial regimes such as Sudan and Zimbabwe have sparked outrage from human rights advocates, academics and officials in the West. Some say that Beijing is undermining the development of democracy and rights in Africa.

In a State Department cable recently released by WikiLeaks, the top US diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, summed up the basic sentiment for an audience of oil executives in Lagos, Nigeria, in February last year when he noted: 'China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals.'

But compared with the US, China actually shows a preference for relatively democratic clients such as Zambia and Namibia, according to a review of arms transfers from the end of the cold war until 2006.

And morals or not, the US tends to favour autocrats and human rights abusers - most notably its ally Egypt.

'The US is promoting its strategic interests even if it means promoting authoritarian regimes, while China is more interested in economic relationships,' said Paul Midford, who co-authored the study with Indra de Soysa using data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The findings turned common wisdom on its head, said Barry Sautman, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

'People naturally assume that because China is an authoritarian state, it will want to sell arms to other authoritarian states, and that the US will do the opposite,' Sautman said.

The actual record is more complicated. In Sudan, a state with an egregious record of atrocities against its people, China has indeed supplied weaponry. But it is not the most important supplier of arms, the authors note. From 2001 to 2008, as international attention to China's involvement in Sudan grew, Russia sold five times more arms to Khartoum, according to the Stockholm data.

More of China's arms went to Egypt - its biggest market in Africa. But there, Beijing's sales were dwarfed by the US. From 1989 to 2006, the US provided Egypt with billions of dollars worth of fighter jets, tanks, missiles and other arms.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, has ruled since 1981 under 'emergency' law that allows the government to detain people without charge. Torture by police and security forces is routine.

'This is not to excuse Chinese arms sales to undemocratic or human rights-violating regimes,' says Ian Taylor, a professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews who has written about China's role in Africa. 'But we need to remember that firstly, China is not the worst culprit in this - the United States is, by far.'

The Stockholm data includes sales of things like tanks, military helicopters, and fighter aircraft. But it doesn't include small arms and dual-use equipment, which are often sold through brokers rather than by direct government-to-government arrangements.

This omission was significant, said Deborah Brautigam, an expert in China-Africa relations at American University in Washington DC. Small arms, including AK-47s and ammunition, comprised the bulk of Chinese weaponry sold in places like Zimbabwe. And the trend, she added, may be towards more Chinese arms sales across Africa - not fewer.

The authors might have come up with different results, she suggested, by looking at a shorter and more recent time span.

'China's export of arms, like all its other exports, are likely on a sharp rise year by year,' Brautigam said.

But Chinese arms sales did not signify an effort to challenge values like rights and democracy, Brautigam and other specialists said.

To those who had painted a picture of an emergent superpower that sought to create a 'Beijing consensus' of authoritarian states, the data from Stockholm illustrated that 'there may not be anything to that', Sautman said.

Midford and de Soysa are both political science professors at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Their research was initially presented at an international studies conference in New Orleans in February, and is under review for publication in an academic journal.