To Honor Its Commitment to UN Arms Trade Treaty, China Must Sacrifice

  • Published
  • By Jelvin Jose & Kannan Reghunathan Nair

In June 2020, Beijing announced its plan to join the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), designed to prevent the flow of arms to conflict zones across the globe. The decision came after Washington’s earlier announcement of the US withdrawal from the treaty. However, Beijing’s decision was at odds with China’s record, due to its supplying of arsenals to unauthorized actors in Africa and Southeast Asia.

ATT is a multilateral agreement that legally binds countries from selling conventional weapons to states, on grounds of potential use of these weapons against “genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.’’ According to Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and countering terrorism, “The entry into force of this ATT is a very important step to peace and security.”1

Unlike the United States and European Union, China has a record of backing regimes and nonstate actors accused by the international community of human rights suppression. Prioritizing strategic and economic ambitions, Beijing has transgressed embargoes instituted by international organizations and fora. Being accused of illegal arms trade, China’s entry into the international agreement responsible for limiting the flow of arms to conflicted areas poses serious concerns about Beijing’s accountability.

If genuine, the new development would represent a paradigm shift from Beijing’s past policy. Beijing had initially rejected the ATT, as it interfered with China’s policy framework concerning the cross-border trade of conventional weapons.2 The cornerstone to Beijing’s success in the swift expansion of its defense markets has been the relatively cheap pricing and greater flexibility toward working with actors prone to human rights violations.

Beijing emerged as the fourth most significant arms supplier to Africa in 1996–2000, reaching the second spot by 2013–2017, with 17 percent of Africa's entire market by 2017, just below Russia.3 The transfer of weapons and defense equipment, notwithstanding the human rights allegations, has been a pillar of Chinese diplomatic outreach to countries such South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar. Given this, Beijing’s new drive to be part of ATT could play off against its previous position.

Ling Li and Ron Matthews4 explain: “Aside from these supply-driven ‘push’ forces, there are also numerous demand-side ‘pull’ factors promoting the growth of China’s arms sales. The most important of these is undoubtedly Beijing’s ‘no-questions asked’ approach to arms sales. Its long-standing non-interference diplomacy rests on the view that a customer’s political, military, and human rights record lies outside the arms deal’s contractual arrangements.”

Authoritarian regimes under scrutiny by the international community for human rights violations thus view Chinese weapons as a way to evade restraints imposed by global standards. Countries such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea, deemed “pariah states” by the West, turn to Beijing for arms. This includes hybrid defense technologies such as cyber and satellite jamming technologies.

Beijing’s “no questions asked” policy regarding arms exports also applies to the modern-day warfare technologies such as armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Unlike the United States, Beijing’s armed UAV supply is not bounded5 by strict standards. Until Donald Trump relaxed6 the US armed UAV export policy under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Washington had restrained the supply of larger armed drones to Australia, the United Kingdom, and France. However, since China is a nonsignatory to the MTCR, Beijing is actively engaged in the supply of armed UAVs across the world, including to conflict zones.

Beijing’s past track record contradicts the essence of ATT, and this article addresses the conflict of interests in Beijing’s new venture. This is done using case studies from Asia and Africa.

Beijing’s Double Game in Africa

Having repeatedly downplayed human rights concerns at international forums, Beijing implicitly sanctions the unrestrained flow of weapons to conflict zones. Beijing’s response to various United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions is a case in point. In August 2006, China refused to vote on UNSC resolution 1706, which called for action against the human rights violators of Sudan and an extension of the arms embargo. In July 2008, Chinese leadership vetoed a resolution imposing sanctions on arms imports on Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe government. Subsequently, in October 2011, China made use of its veto power to block a resolution condemning human rights violations by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Complexity in China’s arms trade with African countries reveals its economic interests in the region. Nevertheless, at the same time, Beijing’s economic entanglement resulted in settling to coordinate policies among different actors in African countries. In the case of Sudan and the newly formed South Sudan, this complexity is evident.

South Sudan got independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war erupted among different factions inside the territory. After independence, China invested heavily in the oil sector in South Sudan and provided ammunition to the government.7 However, the disputed border drawn between the countries demarcated Chinese investments into two nations: oil reserves in South Sudan, and its processing facilities in Sudan.8

Chinese policies suffered a setback when Sudan started supporting antigovernment militias in the south. In December 2013, tensions triggered inside the ruling party of South Sudan, and a rebel faction under the leadership of Riek Machar started a group named Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO).

China was providing arms to both Sudan and South Sudan. The South Sudan government captured ammunition from SPLM-IO, and information from the ammunition showed its origins to China. A report published by Conflict Armament Research in 2015 showed that this ammunition was passed from Sudan to SPLM-IO with a view to deepen Sudanese influence in South Sudan.9

Beijing was aware of the volatility of skirmishes between the two Sudans. Sudan used China’s arms against South Sudan in the brief war over border issues. The weapons shipped by China to Sudan were rerouted to the rebel group via the northern Unity State.10 Moreover, this resulted in the killing of two Chinese UN peacekeeping soldiers in the clashes between South Sudan’s government and the rebel faction SPLM-IO. The incident was regarded as a backlash to China’s policy miscalculations on the African continent.

A United Nations team composed of several arms experts in May 2011 uncovered the presence of high explosives made in China in incendiary cartridges at Tukumare in Darfur, a bloody battlefield in Sudan.11 Although Beijing dismissed the allegation, it sheds light on China’s alleged illicit involvement in the global conflict zones.

China’s role in calibrating peace and security in Africa is acute. Beijing, which emerged as Africa’s largest provider of foreign aid,12 is rapidly expanding its sphere of influence on the continent through an integrated approach consisting of trade, investment, and development partnerships. Along with this, Beijing has forged closer ties with several regimes in Africa, though accused of grave human rights violations, to secure economic and strategic objectives. Beijing extended its role from Sudan to Libya. In 2011, the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, reported that Chinese state–controlled arms manufacturers offered stockpiles of arms to the collapsing regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.13 The documents obtained from the media expose Chinese companies’ conversations with the Qaddafi government regarding vast weapons supplies to Libya via Algeria and South Africa.

Data collected from the news report also clarifies that the Chinese arms manufacturing enterprise was ready to provide $200 million worth of ammunition to Qaddafi’s dictatorial regime. But later, China spokesperson Jiang Yu admitted that the government knew about the talks, but no arms were delivered to the regime. She also reiterated China’s commitment to upholding UNSC resolution 1970, which condemns Qaddafi’s lethal methodology against protestors participating in the Libyan civil war.

Beijing’s relationship with another African state, Zimbabwe, raises serious legitimacy concerns regarding its arms trade on the continent.14 The Chinese, despite howls of international outrage against the prolonged human rights violations committed by security forces under Robert Mugabe, continue to provide financial and hard power assistance to the African regime. Moscow and Beijing have been the only global powers to extend support to Mugabe’s autocratic regime. China continues to remain the backbone of the country’s defense acquisitions. The flow of weapons from Beijing plays a fundamental role in stabilizing the Mugabe regime and assumes center stage in Harare’s defense modernization move.

In July 2008, Beijing and Moscow vetoed a UNSC proposal to impose an arms embargo on the country.15 The motion intended to impose financial sanctions and travel restrictions on Robert Mugabe and 13 other leaders for unleashing violence and intimidation to reassume office. The Chinese arms shipment to Zimbabwe in April 2018 returned unloaded due to the uproar from South African countries.16 The incident was a severe blow to Beijing’s international reputation as a responsible player. Apart from these military ties, both Zimbabwe and Beijing enjoy the cordial economic partnership. China is currently the largest foreign investor and one of the top trading partners of the African state.

The Case of Asia: Inroads to Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Beijing’s conversion of the South Asian island of Sri Lanka, traditionally an Indian stronghold, into its strategic backyard illustrates how Beijing has capitalized on the weapons supply, notwithstanding international norms for geopolitical advancement. The United States and European Union had imposed an arms embargo over human rights infringements by Sri Lankan armed forces during the final phase of the Eelam War. Capitalizing on this, Chinese authorities supplied necessary political, economic, and military support to the Sri Lankan administration to establish a foothold in the country. Beijing also prompted Islamabad to provide weapons and defense equipment to Colombo.17 Besides the hard power backup, the Chinese economic investments also have increased since then. China’s unreserved support of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime—involved in a brutal confrontation with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants—played a pivotal role in Beijing’s Colombo outreach.

Beijing’s leadership delivered antiaircraft guns, Type-56 rifles, Type-85 heavy and Type-80 light machine guns, 81mm mortar shells, 152mm howitzers, RPG-7 rockets, and Jian-7 fighter aircraft to dominate the LTTE’s air wing. The Chinese infrastructure ventures encompass the recently inaugurated Lotus Tower at Colombo, Hambantota Port, aid for the Colombo Port expansion, construction of Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Hambantota cricket stadium, the Shangri La Hotel at Colombo, a power plant at Norochcholai, and the Katunayake Colombo expressway.

The dramatic surge in Beijing’s credit support to Colombo, estimated to be around 10 percent of foreign debt by the end of 2019, reveals the degree of Beijing’s financial support to the island during the crisis. The strategic inroads made by Beijing have been used to keep Sri Lanka in its thrall. Consequently, Sri Lanka in the succeeding years became a global example of the Chinese debt trap, even leading to the controversial handover of a strategically located Sri Lankan port, Hambantota,18 to China for under a lease for 100 years.

Myanmar is another case of Beijing’s illicit ties in Southeast Asia, lending support to a military junta widely charged with human rights violations. International agencies such as the United Nations and Amnesty International have been sharply criticizing Myanmar for a humanitarian catastrophe. Myanmar was charged with massive human rights violations amid the crackdown against the Arakan Army, fighting for more regional autonomy.19 A UN fact-finding commission brought attention to the country’s business-military nexus in facilitating ethnic cleansing.

The report calls for prosecution of senior military officials involved in the brutal genocide of 2017. The violence pushed around 73,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. The same year in December, a UN General Assembly resolution supporting the appointment of a special envoy to monitor the oppressive campaign against the Rohingya community was opposed by China and nine others. The European Union likewise has maintained arms blockade in various forms since the 1990s in Myanmar.20 Undeterred by all these charges, Beijing has been at the forefront of supplying arms and defense equipment to the Southeast Asian state. Furthermore, Beijing also has large-scale economic engagement within Myanmar.


Case studies from Africa and Asia reveal that Beijing has made use of its leverage at the UNSC to cover its economic aspirations over global values, and it is alleged to have protected the military juntas and autocratic regimes from worldwide sanctions.

Beijing’s decision to abide by the UN ATT should be analyzed in light of its track record, and in response to human rights concerns in the international arena, particularly at the UN Security Council, where it plays a pivotal role.21

China’s outlook concerning the necessity of external intervention to preserve the human rights in a country diverges from popular perceptions held by the West. The international community believes that external intervention halting the sovereignty of a nation becomes imperative to preserve human rights when state authorities fail to do so. In eyes of the West, foreign intervention is justified if ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity, genocide, or war crimes occur and the responsible governments are unsuccessful in keeping a check on that. Beijing’s viewpoint on external intervention diverges from the rest, as it believes that intervention becomes necessary only when the internal situation causes international security challenges. Nevertheless, given China’s past involvement in backing regimes operating under the international radar for human rights violations, such as Myanmar’s military, Beijing uses this stance to conceal its pursuit of economic and strategic interests in fragile states.

China’s entry into the UN ATT has brought Beijing’s policy options to a crossroads and represents its intent to create an image of a responsible global actor by compromising on strategic and economic interests. The post-treaty international engagement by China would coerce it to pay heed to global transparency concerns and transform itself into a more responsible player. As Beijing becomes more restrictive of its weapon supply, imposing more restrictions in correspondence to the international standards, those countries could wane as those regimes increasingly turn to others for their sustenance.

Given this, Beijing’s policy makers are left with limited options. Complying with the new regulations risks the massive Chinese investments. As countries operating under the human rights radar constitute a share of Beijing’s foreign arms trade, exercising stringent norms in arms and ammunition supply would reduce Beijing’s market share. Therefore, to do justice to the essence of the pact, Beijing must depart from any strategy of “legitimizing the illegitimacy.”

Jelvin Jose

Mr. Jose is a Young Leader at Pacific Forum. He has been associated with the Institute of Chinese Studies and the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), India. He has previously published with the Foreign Policy Magazine’s South Asia Brief, Columbia Journal of International Affairs, Australian Institute of International Affairs, South Asian Voices, Institute of Chinese Studies, 9DASHLINE, and the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement.

Kannan Reghunathan Nair

Mr. Nair is an incoming MSc Asian Studies student at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Kannan was a former intern at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi and National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), India. He has published articles with South Asian Voices, Australian Outlook, Lowy Institute Interpreter, and 9DASHLINE.

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