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Looking for cheap arms? Russia out, China in

For decades, the Russian Federation and their Soviet forebears used the international cheap arms market to build political and military influence in the developing world. As China seeks to solidify control over this market, how can the West respond?

For decades, the Russian Federation and their Soviet forebears used the international cheap arms market to build political and military influence in the developing world. As China seeks to solidify control over this market, how can the West respond?

Russia has long been the world’s foremost exporter of low-end weaponry.

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Dating back to the USSR, Soviet arms sales weren’t solely an economic venture. Rather, they formed an essential part of Soviet foreign policy – bringing foreign (usually developing) nations politically and militarily closer to the USSR.

According to Robbin Laird in the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Russian arms during the USSR were a version of Henry Kissinger’s “regional influential” policy. It uses arms sales to develop ties with key powers in the Third World, regardless of a given country’s social structure or its prospects for Soviet-style “socialist revolution”.

So important are the political implications of Russia’s arms industry, that the Congressional Research Service Report Russian Arms Sales and Defense Industry even projected Russian arms sales are used as tools to stifle bilateral and multilateral discussions between the United States and the developing world.

According to the same report, they also help the Russian government build an axis with nations who have sub-optimal human rights records while also maintaining their relationships with former-Communist nations who maintain technological expertise with Russian weaponry.

This arms industry is fundamental to bolstering the regimes and the military capabilities of the so-called Axis of Authoritarianism. Indeed, Russia’s defence manufacturing influence stretches from the country’s near abroad among the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, to the MENA and Africa.

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Among those recipients, Al Jazeera reports (between 2016-20):

  • $6.6 billion of sales to India;
  • $4.2 billion of sales to Algeria;
  • $3.3 billion of sales to Egypt;
  • $1.2 billion of sales to Kazakhstan; and
  • $1.2 billion of sales to Iraq.

Indeed, the list continues.

However, with recent sanctions against dual military-commercial products starting to bite Russia, China is uniquely poised to fill this vacancy – and thus absorb the political and military benefits that Russia has so long enjoyed.

Such a prospect will unlikely prove difficult for China, with many of Russia’s high-end products now under joint development alongside Chinese professionals.

Already, the South China Morning Post has reported that the Chinese arms industry has made substantial growth among Russia’s traditional customers in Nigeria and Ethiopia. While it also reported that the country was already the partner “of choice” in Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Associate Professor Vasabjit Banerjee and assistant Professor Benjamin Tkach urged US policy makers to ensure that India, rather than China, absorbs Russia’s export market in War on the Rocks this week.

“The value market comprises developing countries that purchase older model tanks like the T-54/55/64/72, refurbished aircraft such as the II-76 and An-12, and new equipment such as Yak-130 subsonic trainer, Pantsir missile systems, and AK-200 series assault rifles. In Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, Russian defense equipment extends Russian political influence,” the pair argues.

Worryingly, China’s military sales have already seen substantial growth across a diversified market. It is likely that this trajectory will continue as the war in Ukraine rages on, with the Chinese industry already accustomed to “exporting lesser Soviet-designed or co-produced weapons”.

“Sales to Pakistan accounted for 38 per cent of China’s total exports in Asia, though China has diversified to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. China increasingly exports to Africa as well, where it experienced 55 per cent growth between 2012 and 2017,” the pair argues.

“Chinese sales in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru cover a range of equipment including ocean patrol boats, radars, training aircraft, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles, and multi-role fighters (JF-17).”

In light of this, Banerjee and Tkach suggest that Russia’s retreat from the global export market provides an opportunity for India to play a larger role in the international military market and foster their political power across the developing world.

This proposal is unlikely to shift the centre of the world’s industrial military base, with the US still catering to the more expensive military needs of the Western world.

“Washington will still be selling the world’s prestige weapons systems. It should work with India to make sure that the rest of the world is buying its armored vehicles, small arms, and helicopters from a friendly nation instead of an adversary,” the pair contends.

Lessons from Russia’s military capabilities in action

Evidence from the battlefield suggests that Russia’s military technology may not have been as good as many assumed. This, of course, is relative – with many already assuming a rather low bar.

Perhaps the most obvious of which has been the destruction of Russia’s T-90 tanks on the muddy fields of Ukraine, which boasted increased protection against anti-tank missiles with the Shotra-1 active protection system.

Indeed, such lessons from the battlefield are likely to promote introspection among some who use Russian military technology. Though, many autocrats may choose to ignore the truth of the matter.

“Last, there is ample evidence of the mediocre performance of many of Russia’s tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and missile brigades. Much of this appears to be down to poor maintenance. There’s also a problem of equipment suffering from an absence of critical components, because they were never installed or were stolen for sale on the black market,” Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb wrote in ASPI’s The Strategist.

“Xi will want to reassure himself that these sorts of fundamental military deficiencies do not exist in the People’s Liberation Army. But the fact is that a great many of them are indeed deeply embedded in China’s corrupt communist system.”

It is time for Western allies to fill the void of the Russian military industry and reap the economic and political benefits that it affords.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Liam Garman

Liam Garman

Editor – Defence and Security, Momentum Media

Liam began his career as a speech writer at New South Wales Parliament before working for world leading campaigns and research agencies in Sydney and Auckland. Throughout his career, Liam has managed and executed a range of international media and communications campaigns spanning politics, business, industrial relations and infrastructure. He’s since shifted his attention to researching and writing extensively on geopolitics and defence, specifically in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney and is undertaking a Masters in Strategy and Security from UNSW Canberra.
 
Looking for cheap arms? Russia out, China in
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