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China replaces UK as world’s fifth largest arms exporter, says SIPRI

China has become the fifth largest exporter of major conventional arms worldwide, according to new data on international arms transfers published today by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This is the first time China has been in the top five arms exporters since the end of the cold war. Overall, the volume of international transfers of major conventional weapons grew by 17 per cent between 2003–2007 and 2008–12.
The five largest suppliers of major conventional weapons during the five-year period 2008–12 were the United States (30 per cent of global arms exports), Russia (26 per cent), Germany (7 per cent), France (6 per cent) and China (5 per cent). This is the first time that the UK has not been in the top five since at least 1950, the earliest year covered by SIPRI data. China’s displacement of the UK is the first change in the composition of the top five exporters in 20 years.

The volume of Chinese exports of major conventional weapons rose by 162 per cent between 2003–2007 and 2008–2012, and its share of the volume of international arms exports increased from 2 to 5 per cent.

‘China’s rise has been driven primarily by large-scale arms acquisitions by Pakistan,’ said Dr Paul Holtom, Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. ‘However, a number of recent deals indicate that China is establishing itself as a significant arms supplier to a growing number of important recipient states.’ 

Asian imports strengthen naval capabilities

In the period 2008–12 Asia and Oceania accounted for almost half (47 per cent) of global imports of major conventional weapons. The top five importers of major conventional weapons worldwide—India (12 per cent of global imports), China (6 per cent), Pakistan (5 per cent), South Korea (5 per cent), and Singapore (4 per cent)—were all in Asia.

Several countries in Asia and Oceania have in recent years ordered or announced plans to acquire long-range strike and support systems that would make them capable of projecting power far beyond their national borders. Last year notably saw the delivery of a nuclear-powered submarine from Russia to India and the commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning.

Other regional players are seeking to establish or strengthen submarine fleets, including several South East Asian countries and Australia, which is also acquiring large surface warships and combat aircraft. These developments come at a time of heightening tensions over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.

Austerity bites in the European arms market

Deliveries to European countries fell by 20 per cent between 2003–2007 and 2008–12. European states seem eager to abandon or reduce a range of arms import plans. During 2012 Italy and the Netherlands reduced their orders for F-35 combat aircraft from the USA, while Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania dropped plans for newly produced combat aircraft in favour of second-hand options. 

Many European states are also seeking to export newly acquired combat aircraft that they can no longer afford to maintain. For example, Portugal is seeking buyers for its new fleet of F-16s and Spain is seeking to sell newly purchased Eurofighter Typhoons.

‘With the financial crisis in Europe, the withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, we can expect to see Europe trying to export a considerable volume of surplus military equipment,’ said Mark Bromley, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.

Other notable developments 

  • Russia accounted for 71 per cent of exports of major weapons to Syria in 2008–12 and continued to deliver arms and ammunition in 2012.
  • The Arab states of the Gulf accounted for 7 per cent of world arms imports in 2008–2012. Missile defence systems were an important element in their latest arms acquisitions, with orders placed in 2011–12 for Patriot PAC-3 and THAAD systems from the USA.
  • Deliveries of weapons system to Venezuela as part of its ongoing rearmament programme continued in 2012. Russia accounted for 66 per cent of transfers to Venezuela, followed by Spain (12 per cent) and China (12 per cent).
  • Imports by North African states increased by 350 per cent between 2003–2007 and 2008–12, which was almost entirely responsible for a doubling (by 104 per cent) in imports by Africa as a whole.
  • Sub-Saharan imports increased by just 5 per cent. Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa imported only small numbers of major weapons, but many of these have been used in internal conflicts or in interventions in conflicts in neighbouring states, most recently in Mali. 
  • Greece’s arms imports fell by 61 per cent between 2003–2007 and 2008–12, pushing it from the number 4 importer to number 15. In 2006–10 Greece was the top recipient of German arms exports and the third largest recipient of French arms exports. 

For editors

The SIPRI Arms Transfers Database contains information on all international transfers of major conventional weapons (including sales, gifts and production licences) to states, international organizations and armed non-state groups from 1950 to the most recent full calendar year. SIPRI data reflects the volume of deliveries of arms, not the financial value of the deals. As the volume of deliveries can fluctuate significantly year on year, SIPRI presents data for 5-year periods, giving a more stable measure of trends. 


This is the second of three major data set pre-launches in the lead-up to the publication of SIPRI Yearbook 2013. On 18 February SIPRI released its data on arms production (including the SIPRI Top 100 arms-producing and military services companies for 2011). On 15 April, SIPRI will launch its world military expenditure data (comprehensive information on global, regional and national trends in military spending). Finally, in June, SIPRI will launch its 2013 Yearbook (cutting-edge information and analysis on the state of the world’s nuclear forces, the international peacekeeping agenda and steps to control weapons of mass destruction).