How can the world be made safer and what role can China play in that process?

In November 2011 the Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies, Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism and the China Policy Institute (all based at the University of Nottingham) hosted a special roundtable discussion with Saferworld and its delegation of renowned scholars and military officers from China who specialise in international security issues to address this question. Saferworld is an NGO that works to prevent and reduce violent conflict. It is one of the few international NGOs that have been actively engaged in policy dialogue with Chinese governmental and non-governmental actors with the overall goal of ensuring China contributes more
positively to international action towards conflict prevention and peace-building.

In this unique dialogue we talked about the human-security implications of the proliferation of Small Arms and Light weapons (SALW); China’s role in the arms trade; and the development of common international standards for the regulation of the arms trade.

Five main points emerged from this discussion:

1. The importance of international regulations of the arms trade. While much attention has been paid to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms, especially SALW, have proved to be the real ‘weapons of mass destruction’, killing hundreds of thousands of people every year. Therefore, it is extremely important to find better ways of regulating the international trade in conventional arms. Furthering our understanding of the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) initiative, which is currently the most important initiative in the conventional arms control field, is consequently essential. There has been an
important shift in China’s policy on the ATT, from a more cautious position to one which has embraced the need for an ATT. In some ways, this reflects the evolution of the ATT itself, from an idea proposed by NGOs to one being negotiated at the UN. While China seeks to increase its ‘soft power’, the ATT initiative offers a great opportunity for China to demonstrate that it is playing a ‘responsible great power’ role.

2. China is not the only problem. The United States is by far the leading producer and exporter of conventional arms. Chinese arms sales, which currently amount to just 7-9 per cent of the overall arms market, are much smaller than those of the US and other leading exporters. However, the international media has paid much closer attention to Chinese arms sales and where Chinese arms end up, rather than the destination of the arms coming from Western countries or other leading arms exporters, including Russia (as exemplified by arms sales to Sudan and Libya). It is important to recognise that it is not only Chinese arms that end up in ‘the wrong places’. The uncontrolled or poorly regulated international arms trade has global implications, and all the major states have a responsibility for improving the regulation of the arms trade. Examples of both good and bad practice in this area can be found in China as in other countries.

3. The importance of an effective and transparent risk assessment system. This does not mean that China is exempt from responsibilities, or that it cannot be more effective and proactive in better controlling its international arms trade. Internationally, sovereign states are permitted to buy and sell arms. The Chinese government has norms controlling arms exports. There are three basic principles guiding Chinese arms export
licensing policy. Firstly, arms exports must be meant for the importing state’s legitimate self-defence. Secondly, the export must not impair peace, safety or stability in the recipient’s region or globally. Thirdly, exports should not be used as a means of interfering in the internal affairs of the recipient country. In addition to these principles, the defence industry is not allowed to sell arms to non-state actors. However, existing norms and principles leave too much scope to interpretation. Moreover, China does not have an effective ‘risk assessment’ system that would prevent arms made in China from being transferred to proscribed users, including non-state actors. China may sell weapons to the Khartoum government, but those weapons have been used by armed militias in Darfur. Providing more transparent information about the recipients of Chinese arms, after the trade deal is made, is important to trace the final destination of Chinese arms and make the Chinese arms export control system much more accountable.

4. Ethics of the arms trade. Effective controls on the international movement of arms can make a very positive difference to the lives of millions of people who are affected every year by the uncontrolled or poorly regulated trade in arms. Although arms can be traded between sovereign states, should we simply accept this, when we know some states use imported arms to violate human rights by indiscriminately killing or injuring civilians? In other words, is it ethical to sell arms to such states? Two key issues emerged from this question. The first related to the fundamental question in international relations—who has the right to decide what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ state? The second was more of a pragmatic nature: asking the ethics question might unnecessarily ‘politicise’ the issue; in other words, it might let the blame game dominate the debate. Too much politicisation impedes to focus on the pragmatic issues on which everyone can agree. For example, with reference to the ATT, there is a baseline on which all states can agree. It is the need to prevent arms from being transferred to illegitimate users, or for illegitimate purposes, as they are recognised in international law (for example, countries under mandatory UN embargoes and indiscriminate killings of civilians). When asking the ethics question, we need to balance it with more pragmatic considerations on what countries are already committed and bound to under international law and how to translate such commitments in effective arms
transfer controls.

5. The importance of a comprehensive approach to human security. The arms trade is one of the many issues that relate to human security, or the lack of it. There are many other issues that cause human insecurity, such as poverty, hunger, under-development and terrorism—all extremely important problems in themselves. However, the spread of arms is the common link amongst them that stokes the fires of human insecurity. Without better arms control, especially in conflict-affected and fragile states, any attempt to reduce poverty and improve development, for example, will be hampered. The Chinese government focuses on development as a means of addressing human security issues. But development is not a panacea: a comprehensive approach to human security, one that takes into account the root causes of the problem without disregarding what most immediately fuels human insecurity, remains an imperative.


Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.