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Chinese Arms Exports Carry Hidden Risks, Says US Think Tank


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According to a US think tank, countries considering purchasing Chinese weapons must exercise caution as the initial cost savings may result in long-term complications. The RAND Corporation researcher, Cindy Zheng, emphasizes the potential hidden costs associated with Chinese military equipment malfunctions in a recent blog post. While Chinese arms exports face certain drawbacks, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is expected to provide market opportunities for China to expand its influence and profit from arms sales.


The Appeal of Chinese Arms:


For developing nations with limited defense budgets, Chinese arms present an enticing option. China offers a wide range of military equipment, including missiles, warships, armored vehicles, and drones, at relatively affordable prices.

For instance, the cost of a JF-17 fighter, comparable to an F-16, is estimated to be between $15 million and $25 million, significantly lower than the $65 million price tag of the latest Block 70 F-16 version.


The True Cost of Ownership:

However, much like purchasing a used car, the sticker price does not reflect the actual cost of ownership, especially for less developed nations in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, which constitute the majority of Chinese arms buyers.

Zheng highlights that the lack of technological compatibility and expertise to address equipment issues can prove to be particularly costly. Countries often struggle to acquire replacement parts and lack the necessary personnel for maintenance. For example, Nigeria had to send its F-7 fighters back to China due to the Nigerian Air Force’s inability to perform maintenance tasks.


Quality Concerns and Decline in Chinese Arms Sales:

Several countries have experienced technical issues with Chinese-made weapons. Myanmar faced problems with its JF-17 fighters, while Bangladesh encountered difficulties with its K-8W jet trainers and HQ-7 air-defense systems.

These quality concerns, among other factors, have contributed to a 23% decline in Chinese arms exports between the periods of 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, as reported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).


China’s Strategy and Competition:

China’s arms sales appeal lies not in technical capabilities but rather in offering easy credit and serving as an alternative supplier. Unlike some nations, China does not tie arms sales to human rights issues, making it an attractive option for many countries.

China’s willingness to sell to a wide range of nations without political contingencies has led to increased sales and competition with Russia, particularly in Africa. However, the debt burden resulting from purchasing Chinese military hardware has raised concerns about countries falling into a debt trap.


The Future of Chinese Arms Sales:

China’s success in selling more complex weapons, such as jet fighters, remains uncertain. It is too early to assess the quality of Chinese-made advanced weapons, given the limited client reviews and the relatively low ratio of advanced weaponry compared to lower-value arms in their current exports.

Nonetheless, China aims to expand its influence in the international arms market and recognizes the importance of Russia’s continued role. As the conflict in Ukraine progresses, China stands ready to capitalize on potential shifts in the availability of Russian weapons.



Countries interested in acquiring Chinese arms must carefully consider the hidden costs associated with their purchase. While China offers competitive prices and serves as an alternative arms supplier, issues with technological compatibility, maintenance, and quality have been observed.

The allure of affordability should not overshadow the long-term implications and potential complications that can arise. As international competition intensifies, the arms market dynamics are expected to evolve, and it remains to be seen how China’s arms exports will fare in the future.

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