An Overview of China’s arms exports to Africa

Chinese weaponry is increasingly attracting patronage as a result of its cost-effectiveness.


China’s Emergence as a Major Arms Merchant

Although there is an overall decline in global arms export to Africa over the past few decades, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) disclosed that arms sales decreased by at least 6.5%.

Years of economic growth spurt alongside China’s ongoing military modernization has enabled the country emerge as a major player in the global arms trade.

Years ahead, China has a solid foothold in Africa, since, countries in Africa collectively purchased around 21 per cent ($3 billion since 2008) of China’s overall arms exports. And both Chinese and African officials promised to increase that figure.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which examined the volume of international transfers of major weapons between 2008 and 2017, showed China’s arms exports represented 5.7 per cent of the world’s share of arms exports between 2013-17.

Most of these arms are sold to Northern African nations, constituting a 42 per cent of Chinese exports to the continent. An additional 29 per cent flows into Eastern Africa, and the remaining 29 per cent is divided between other African states.

In SIPRI’s research, the total arms imports decreased by 45% between 2009–13 and 2014–18. While the top five arms importers in sub-Saharan Africa were Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, Cameroon and Senegal. Together, they accounted for 56% of arms imports to the subregion.

Africa’s Arms suppliers, the numbers

In terms of suppliers, SIPRI stated that in 2014–18 Russia accounted for 49% of total arms imports to North Africa, the USA for 15%, China for 10%, France for 7.8% and Germany for 7.7%. Russia accounted for 66% of Algerian arms imports in 2014–18, compared with 90% in 2009–13. Algeria’s other chief arms suppliers in 2014–18 were China (13%) and Germany (10%). The USA (62%) and France (36%) were the main suppliers of arms to Morocco in 2014–18.

Chinese arms and ammunition sales to Egypt, the third largest arms importer in 2014–18, tripled (206%) between 2009–13 and 2014–18. Algeria – Egypt’s main rival accounted for 56% of African imports of major arms in 2014–18. Most other states in Africa import very few major arms.

China was the fifth largest arms exporter in 2014–18. Whereas Chinese arms exports rose by 195% between 2004–2008 and 2009–13, they increased by only 2.7% between 2009–13 and 2014–18.

Although China has established itself as an arms export leader, the overall value of its trade still pales in comparison to the United States, whose exports averaged $9 billion annually over the last ten years.

With this in mind, Chinese weaponry is increasingly attracting patronage mainly as a result of its cost-effectiveness. Although Chinese arms are often less advanced than those sold by other countries, in a report titled ‘Chinese Military Power’, the UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE observed that “Chinese arms are less expensive than those offered by the top international arms suppliers… [but still] have advanced capabilities.” For example, the low-cost K-8 jet trainer is estimated to make up 80 per cent of all jet trainer aircraft in Africa.

China’s continued peacekeeping operations as well as it’s setting up of a military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, have strengthened defence ties anchored on its increasingly strong economic relationship with African countries.

Chinese Arms Export Surge

From 2013 to 2017, China’s arms exports to Africa surged 55 per cent from the previous five-year period of 2008 to 2012, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

While Africa’s overall arms imports decreased 22 per cent over the same period, China’s share of total African arms imports rose 8.6 per cent to 17 per cent.

Meanwhile, Russian arms exports to Africa fell by 32 per cent, accounting for 39 per cent of total imports to the region. The US accounted for 11 per cent of arms exports to Africa.

These are the arms China has sold to African countries between 2013 and 2017, according to UNROCA’s data:

In 2013, China reported the following sales to African countries:

  • Battle Tanks – 30 to Chad, 24 to Tanzania;
  • Armored Combat Vehicles – 11 to Cameroon, 28 to Ghana;
  • Large caliber artillery systems – 12 to Cameroon, 12 to Tanzania;

In 2014:

  • Armoured combat vehicles – 12 to Mozambique, for participation in the International peacekeeping mission;
  • Warships – 1 to Nigeria;
  • 100 guided missile systems to South Sudan. (According to SCMP, not UNROCA)

In 2015:

  • Armored Combat Vehicles – 106 to Kenya, 3 to Sierra Leone;
  • Large caliber artillery systems – 2 to Chad, 50 to Nigeria;

In 2016:

  • Armored combat vehicles – 12 to Mozambique, 7 to Sierra Leone;
  • Large caliber artillery systems – 12 to Senegal;
  • Combat aircraft – 6 Combat aircraft to Zambia (not UAV);
  • Warships – 1 to Nigeria;
  • Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems (MANPADS) – 100 MANPADS to Ghana;

In 2017:

  • Armored combat vehicles – 3 to Mali, 20 to Nigeria, 12 to Somalia, 12 to Tanzania;
  • Large caliber artillery systems – 15 to Senegal;
  • Missiles and missile launchers – 8 to Namibia.

Overview of Chinese arms sold to African countries

VT4 Main Battle Tank

China exported 24 battle tanks to Tanzania and 30 to Chad in 2013, according to the latest available data from the United Nation Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA).

China exports a few home-designed model battle tanks overseas. Its main model, the VT4 battle tank, is a third-generation vehicle built by for overseas export by state-owned arms maker China North Industries Group

Armoured Vehicles

Armoured combat vehicles also are one of China’s top weapons exports to African countries, with Ghana and Namibia importing 76 and 21, respectively, in 2009 and Kenya importing 32 in 2007. Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Chad and Gabon also have bought armoured combat vehicles from China.

CH-3 and Wing Loong drones

As a result of US drone export policy requiring all drone exports to go through a strict government approval process, African countries have turned to China to bolster their drone fleets.

Nigerian Air Force fleet of CH-3 drones
Nigerian Air Force fleet of CH-3 drones

Drones also are among China’s major arms export items in the continent with Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria all have been buyers of China-built CASC CH-3 Rainbow, CH-4 and CH-5 UCAV.

It is unclear how many unmanned combat aerial vehicles China actually has exported overseas, but what is certain is it wants to export more drones to dominate the market.


JF-17 Thunder is China’s major jet in its export market. The single-engined jet was developed jointly by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation of China.

K-8 KARAKORUM is a third generations trainer aircraft with secondary combat capability. Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Bolivia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Ghana have all procured Chinese aircraft.

Missile systems

According to UNROCA, Morocco and Sudan have imported missiles and missile launchers from China. These arms have reportedly been used during conflicts in Congo and Sudan. In July 2014 alone, Norinco delivered 100 guided missile systems to South Sudan.

The Red Arrow 9 anti-tank missile system and GP6 155mm laser-homing artillery weapon systems are Norinco’s major exports.

The Red Arrow is an advanced, third-generation anti-tank missile system deployed by the People’s Liberation Army. It has a maximum range of 5.5km with armour penetration of 1,200mm. Rwanda is an operator of this equipment.

The GP6 laser-homing artillery weapon system is designed to engage tanks and be used in infantry fighting. It is capable of destroying targets within a range of six to 25 kilometres. The GP6 laser-homing artillery weapon system has been used in combat in Libya. Rwanda Defense Force is an operator of this equipment.

Congo, Ghana, Sudan, Cameroon, Tanzania, Niger and Rwanda have imported calibre artillery systems from China.

An undisclosed number of C-802 anti-ship missiles to Algeria in 2018, Morocco and China are in a discussion concerning procurement of the Sky Dragon 50 air defence system.


Two-thirds of African countries now using Chinese firearms, the main firearms, Using an analysis of the exports into 51 countries on the continent the IISS determined that 68 per cent of them currently use Chinese- made Type 56 assault rifle.

Ekene Lionel

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