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China has become less dependent on arms imports over the past five years due to increased military capabilities at home, while boosting its own exports by 74 per cent, according to a report released on Monday.
The study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute also showed a continuing arms race in Asia Pacific amid the escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, with Beijing's Asian neighbours drastically increasing their arms purchases since 2012.
Comparing two five-year periods between 2007-11 and 2012-16, the volume of Chinese exports of major arms increased by 74 per cent. Its share of the global total of exports rose from 3.8 to 6.2 per cent, making it the third-largest supplier in the world, following the United States and Russia.
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Unlike the US, which accounts for one-third of exports and supplies at least 100 countries, China delivered major arms to 44 countries, mostly in Asia and Africa. More than 60 per cent of China's exports went to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar and another 22 per cent went to Africa.
China has also been expanding its market. In 2015, it exported type 90 multi-barrel rocket launchers to Peru, the first time Chinese weapons were used to equip Peru's armed forces. A report released by the Pentagon last April estimated that China's arms sales from 2010 to 2014 totalled about US$15 billion.
Thanks to China's growing economic and military ability to produce its own advanced weapons, its arms imports fell by 11 per cent between the two five-year periods, the institute found.
But China remains partly dependent on Russia, Ukraine and France for certain key weapons and components, such aircraft engines, which accounted for 30 per cent of China's imports. It also imported large transport aircraft, helicopters, vehicles and ships, according to the report.
The report also highlighted the ongoing military build-up in Southeast Asia. "Tensions between several countries with maritime claims in the South China Sea have directly or indirectly driven up demand for major weapons in this subregion," it said.
Vietnam jumped from being the 29th largest importer to the 10th largest, with its imports climbing 202 per cent, the highest growth rate among the top 10 importers.
The Philippines saw an increase of 426 per cent, and Australia, which accounted for 3.3 per cent of the global total in the 2007–16 period, also invested heavily in naval and air force assets to counter a perceived growing threat from China, according to the report.
"With no regional arms control instruments in place, states in Asia continue to expand their arsenals", said Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher with the institute's arms and military expenditure programme. "While China is increasingly able to substitute arms imports with indigenous products, India remains dependent on weapons technology from many willing suppliers, including Russia, the USA, European states, Israel and South Korea."
The Pentagon said in a report last year that China's military modernisation, supported by an annual military budget growth of nearly 10 per cent in inflation-adjusted terms from 2006 through to 2015, had the potential to reduce core US military technological advantages.