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Case studies: China before and after ATT accession – Assessing the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty, Part 11

China has been a major arms exporter over the last decade and beyond. Between 2017 and 2021, China was responsible for 4.6% of global arms exports, though this is a decrease from the previous five years.[i] Given its role as a major arms exporter and their recent accession to the ATT in 2020, China provides a good case study for ATT effectiveness. Before acceding to the Treaty, China had supplied arms in many situations which would have violated the ATT, if they had been party to the Treaty. 

Many hoped China’s accession would be a positive step and see China sincerely comply with their Treaty obligations and discontinue arms exports to states where there are human rights concerns and humanitarian law concerns, as covered in the ATT. This section of the report will examine to what extent China’s accession to the ATT has been effective at stopping, or curbing, China’s arms exports to states where there are such concerns.

Read the full report here

Chinese UAV Wing Loong II – MAKS-2017, 18 July 2017. Source http://www.vitalykuzmin.net/Military/MAKS-2017-StaticDisplaysPart2, Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Arms transfers since accession

SIPRI’s data for 2021 on arms transfers from China (see Appendix 12) shows a year’s worth of arms transfers since China’s accession to the Treaty. This data seems to demonstrate no significant change in who is receiving arms from China or the types of arms they have received.

Of the 18 countries which received arms transfers from China in 2021, 13 received explosive weapons or equipment which could launch explosive weapons: Algeria, Bangladesh, Chad, Egypt, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Thailand, UAE and an unknown recipient[ii]. In 2021 AOAV recorded casualties from manufactured explosive weapons use by five of these states, which caused a total of 718 civilian casualties (304 killed, 414 injured); 383 of these casualties were due to Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition and 267 from Myanmar’s explosive violence.[iii]

Of the countries which received such arms transfers in 2021, there are a few countries of concern given China’s new ATT commitments, particularly concerning explosive weapon use, let alone human rights violations. These include Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Some of the weapons include drones, missiles, self-propelled mortar guns, tanks, and fighter jets.

One of the clearest violations of China’s commitments under the ATT since their accession has been the sale of weapons to Myanmar, as already mentioned in this report. The sale of four K-8 jet fighters and four Y-12 planes in December 2021 would have been made with the knowledge that fighter jets have been used to target civilians.[iv]

China is also likely to have violated its ATT commitments with the transfer of 50 Wing Loong-2s to Saudi Arabia, where these are likely to be used in the conflict in Yemen. While most of these transfers took place before the ATT entered into force for China, it is clear that some were delivered up until January 2021.[v] These sales may be an indication of little impact stemming from China having joined the ATT, in terms of to whom and under what conditions China will transfer arms. This is not to undermine other impacts that China’s accession to the ATT may have had, including encouraging other states from Asia to join, or on improved internal policies and improved cooperation in combatting illicit arms trade, for example.

However, perhaps one of the key tests of China’s commitment to the ATT thus far regarding their arms transfers has been Russia’s reported request for military assistance since their invasion of Ukraine. It was reported that Russia requested supplies including surface-to-air missiles and drones, as well as other equipment and vehicles.[vi] Both Russia and China have denied this request was made.[vii]

So far, it appears that China has not supplied arms to Russia. This may indicate a change in Chinese arms policy since the ATT accession as before their accession, China had frequently been known to supply arms to States waging conflict, but their exports of 2021 still deserve scrutiny.

Internal laws and procedures and transparency

In December 2021, China issued a White Paper on Export Controls,[viii] building on China’s recent Export Control Law,[ix] which came into effect in December 2020. The White Paper indicated a tightening of rules and procedures around many exports, including arms exports. It shows China has sought to adopt better policies and practices in line with its international commitments, including improved practices related to licencing, end-user certificates, and expert teams for departments covering military products.

While this implies that improvements are being made, it will still take more time to understand the impact this has in practice and whether this will prevent arms transfers that conflict with China’s ATT responsibilities.

Another area in which there was hope for improvement as a result of China’s accession to the ATT was within accountability and transparency, such as through the reporting mechanism of the ATT. Though China’s first report has been deposited to the ATT, it did not make the report publicly accessible. Transparency and accountability within the global arms trade are key aims of the ATT and states that choose to make these reports not publicly accessible threaten such realisations.

The EU and others,[x] produced a statement for the Working Group on Transparency and Reporting, criticising China’s lack of transparency with the publication of its initial report. However, China is among an increasing number of states providing reports to the ATT that are not made publicly available, including some of the EU states and other states supporting the statement criticising China’s lack of transparency.[xi]

Impact of accession to the ATT

That the report by China is not publicly available also makes analysis such as this challenging; making it difficult to understand the true impact of their accession to the ATT. While there are still arms transfers that are of concern and some that likely violate China’s ATT commitments, this is not to say that there have been no improvements since China’s accession.

Much of China’s focus has been on preventing diversion of arms and may be an area where China’s cooperation and insight may result in further improvement and greater capacity building for developing states. That China has also not transferred weapons to Russia since the start of the invasion in Ukraine may also indicate their commitment to the ATT – it is difficult to account for weapons not transferred and whether such transfers would have taken place before the treaty but it remains indicative.

Further, given their role in the global arms trade, their accession to the ATT could certainly have ramifications for the ATT’s overall effectiveness.


Navigate the report:

Assessing the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty – Executive Summary

Part 1: Nation-by-nation review analysis

Part 2: Who is causing the most harm?

Part 3: Who is providing arms?

Part 4: Thematic examination

Part 5: Conclusion

Part 6: Recommendations 

Part 7: Case studies – Myanmar’s military

Part 8: Case studies – Saudi Arabia in Yemen

Part 9: Case studies – Non-state armed groups in the Philippines

Part 10: Case studies – the Taliban

Part 11: Case studies – China before and after ATT accession

Part 12: Case studies – the United Kingdom, from key ATT architect to key violator?


[i] https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/fs_2203_at_2021.pdf (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[ii] SIPRI indicates that the country is in South East Asia – perhaps Cambodia or Myanmar.

[iii] 58 civilian casualties were caused by Nigeria, five by Pakistan and five by Uganda.

[iv] Human Rights Council, ‘Enabling atrocities: arms transfers by States Members of the United Nations to the Myanmar military, Conference room paper of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar’, 22 Feb 2022, A/HRC/49/CRP.1

[v] Army Recognition, ‘WING LOONG II UAV MALE: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance China’, https://www.armyrecognition.com/china_chinese_unmanned_aerial_ground_systems_uk/wing_loong_ii_2_uav_male_armed_drone_data_pictures_video_11906174.html (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[vi] Financial Times, ‘China reverses roles in arms trade with Russia’, 29 March 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/dc4bc03c-3d9d-43bd-91db-1ede084e0798 (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[vii] Financial Times, ‘China reverses roles in arms trade with Russia’, 29 March 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/dc4bc03c-3d9d-43bd-91db-1ede084e0798 (accessed 07 Jan 2023)    

[viii] China’s Export Controls, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, December 2021, https://english.www.gov.cn/archive/whitepaper/202112/29/content_WS61cc01b8c6d09c94e48a2df0.html (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[ix] 中华人民共和国出口管制法 (PRC Export Control Law) 17 October 2020. A translation is available: https://www.cov.com/-/media/files/corporate/publications/file_repository/prc_export_control_law_2020_10_cn_en_covington.pdf (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[x] Including candidate countries Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, the EFTA countries Iceland and Norway, members of the European Economic Area, as well as Georgia.[xi] All of the reports submitted to the ATT by Cyprus are not publicly available as well as most from Georgia, Greece and Lithuania. Albania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Portugal, Spain and Latvia’s latest reports have not been made public. While Iceland has never submitted a report. Arms Trade Treaty, ‘Annual Reports’, https://thearmstradetreaty.org/annual-reports.html?templateId=209826 (accessed 07 Jan 2023)