The Arms Trade War Between China and the United States

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Despite significant advancements in military technology, China continues to lag significantly behind the United States in terms of arms exports. The case of Nigeria lends credence to this claim.

Many aspects of the United States’ qualitative military advantage have been chipped away at by China in recent decades, as the country has rapidly developed its own competitive or asymmetric capabilities at a rapid pace. However, despite its significant success in modernising its own military, China has not yet achieved parity with the United States – or with Russia or with Europe – in terms of selling its domestically produced armaments to international customers, despite its efforts.

It goes without saying that arms sales do not serve as a direct proxy for geopolitical power. However, they are not simply an economic exchange in the traditional sense. There are legal, ethical, and strategic issues that must be taken into account when selling weapons that do not apply to other forms of trade. Most modern weapons, in addition, require ongoing support, which helps to cement the relationship between the provider and client states and can be used as leverage to strengthen other components of a political or strategic alliance.

Take, for example, Nigeria, which is both the largest (in terms of population) and the richest country in Africa. For understanding the dynamics of the global arms trade, Nigeria is a useful case study, in part because it is not legally associated with either the United States or China; nonetheless, both countries have close ties with the country, and both have sold high-end equipment to it in recent years.

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Although Nigeria is rich in natural resources, the country is plagued by a slew of interlocking security issues, including Islamist insurgency, banditry, piracy, mass kidnapping, and the disintegration of the social and political compact between the federal government and its constituent states. Nigeria has been looking for new weapons for some time, which is not surprising given the demands placed on its armed forces and the attrition they have seen. However, the basic answer to the country’s challenges would require much more than just new weapons.

The military’s Cold War-era legacy systems have severe shortcomings, even if one ignores the – admittedly complex – issues of training, morale, and tactics that they address. One particularly significant problem for a country whose primary adversaries are irregular opponents within its own population is a lack of precision, which results in a higher rate of civilian casualties than would otherwise be the case. In turn, the primary task of counterinsurgency – keeping the civilian population from siding with the rebels – is made even more difficult than it already is by the proliferation of weapons.

It has been drawing from the catalogues of both Chinese and Western suppliers as the Nigerian military continues to modernise its most important systems. The Air Force is replacing its old Chengdu J-7s with much newer JF-17 Thunder multirole fighters; a joint product of China and Pakistan, but simultaneously introducing Embraer Super Tucanos designed in Brazil and produced in the United States. It is an unusual combination of surface combatants: one German-designed frigate, two ex-US Coast Guard cutters, and two modern Chinese-built Type 056 corvettes, which are the Navy’s primary surface combatants.

Part of this is down to political considerations. While the United States openly and inconsistently relates arms sales to adherence to human rights standards, the Nigerian military’s performance in this area is often dismally lacking in this regard. The sale of the Super Tucano, for example, was first agreed upon but then placed on hold by the Obama administration after the Nigerian Air Force bombed a refugee camp in the country. The transaction was renewed by the Trump administration, and while the Biden administration did not impede the delivery of the first six aircraft, the Senate has put a halt to a proposed sale of secondhand AH-1 Super Cobra attack helicopters, according to the Associated Press.

A strategy that is a combination of traditional and unconventional methods is advantageous in some ways. Even states that produce the full spectrum of exportable military hardware – a rarified category that China entered only recently – do not necessarily produce the right hardware solution for every strategic or tactical problem. Example: The U.S., which has consistently enjoyed air supremacy in all of the conflicts in which it has participated for more than 50 years, develops a significantly more limited variety of ground-based anti-aircraft weaponry than either Russia or China. For example, a country confronting a specific set of strategic circumstances may discover that the finest feasible combination of equipment comes from a nationally varied mix of providers.

However, a combination of systems from multiple national providers may necessitate a significant amount of additional effort in order to function properly. Precision-guided weapons developed in China cannot simply be mounted on U.S. helicopters, and ammunition made in the United States cannot be fired from Russian weaponry. Those high-end systems also require maintenance, spare parts, upgrades, crew training, and repairs. Moreover, as those systems become more complicated, and in particular as they become more computerised and networked, the amount of power that the supplier may apply to the customer increases as well.

Iran, for example, has managed to keep its pre-revolutionary U.S.-built fighter, transport, and helicopter fleets flying and fighting through extremely creative sourcing and local industrial work. However, a country that purchases F-35s and then decides to break away from the United States may find that the aircraft are rendered completely inoperable in a short period of time due to a combination of extreme technical complexity and the need for software updates, both of which contain exploitable vulnerabilities.

Read also: US Military says China is expanding its nuclear missile silos

China’s advantage in this cutthroat world is that its weapons are offered at a lower price point than those of the U.S.. This is a critical consideration for emerging countries such as Nigeria. Their disadvantage is that the majority of their equipment – especially the newer, higher-end systems – are not yet combat-proven; and are pressured at the low end by the availability of large quantities of secondhand but still highly functional U.S.-made gear.

Beijing seems willing to sell, and eager to add military hardware to its infrastructural and commercial investments in the developing world. But even if its defense industry has the advantage on value for money and willingness to sell regardless of human rights issues, the example of Nigeria shows that China remains some ways away from matching its arms export ambitions to the pace of its domestic military modernization.

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