Arms trade: Exports grow as world crises grip

Iraqi soldiers check their weapons as they are stationed on the Iraqi-Saudi border in Iraq"s southern Samawah Image copyright AFP
Image caption The conflict in Iraq is just one of the factors in a recent rise in arms exports

International arms sales are a good barometer of the rising tensions in the world.

According to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), over the past five years the volume of transfers of major weapons systems was up some 14% over 2006-11.

And no wonder. Just look at the headlines.

There are growing tensions in Asia, prompted in large part by China's rise as a regional power.

The Middle East is in a state of total melt-down with Iraq and Syria in chaos; Saudi Arabia at war in Yemen; and with those countries not engaged directly in conflict all eager to bolster their defences.

Even in Europe, which perhaps enjoyed something of a "peace dividend" in the wake of the ending of the Cold War, Russia's behaviour has prompted a slow rise in military spending, although this latter phenomenon has perhaps been too recent to figure in Sipri's tables.

The United States remains the major global arms supplier by a significant margin, accounting for some 33% of sales; its major customers being Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Russia is the second major supplier, with 25% of sales, its principal clients being India and China.

Arms trade

Volume of international transfers


Increase in 2011-15 vs 2006-10

  • 74% of exports come from just five countries - the US, Russia, China, France and Germany

  • 58% comes from the US and Russia alone


China itself is also developing as an arms seller.

Indeed Sipri shows that it has leapfrogged over France and Germany into third place, accounting for just under 6% of sales with Pakistan as far and away its largest client.

China's role as an arms exporter reflects the growing sophistication of its own military industries; a product of its rising military ambitions.

Lost in the broad aggregate figures is the fact that China's rise provides an additional source of supply for weaponry that has long been the preserve of a small group of western nations.

The export of unmanned drones is a good example with Chinese-supplied armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle's having been spotted in Nigeria; proof-positive that the days of Beijing simply exporting cheap and cheerful rip-offs of Russian weaponry are over.

Nonetheless, the fact that China remains a major importer of sophisticated arms shows that it still has a way to go in developing the most advanced weapons systems but the pace of its development is remarkable.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption China has developed itself as an arms exporter and is now the world's 3rd biggest seller

Both French and German arms sales fell during the past five years, though those for the UK (in sixth position) rose by nearly a quarter.

On the demand side the five biggest importers of arms in 2011-15 were India, Saudi Arabia, China, the UAE and Australia, who together accounted for some 34% of all arms imports illustrating once again that in Asia and the Middle East re-armament is very much the order of the day.