China’s ability to move quickly on military sales is costing the United States in two key regions and could have even more dire consequences in the years to come, top U.S. military officers are warning lawmakers.
The blunt assessments from the commanders of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East and South Asia, and from U.S. Africa Command come as a growing number of defense officials voice concerns about the rapid military modernization that has already made China the Pentagon’s “pacing challenge.”
“This is a race to integrate before China can penetrate,” Central Command’s General Michael Kurilla told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, pointing to an 80% increase in Chinese military sales to the region over the past 10 years.
“Our security partners have real security needs, and we are losing our ability to provide our equipment,” he said, citing long waits for U.S. military sales to be approved and for the equipment to be delivered.
“What China does is they come in [and] they open up their entire catalog. They give them express shipping. They give them no end-user agreement. And they give them financing,” Kurilla said. “They are much faster.”
Africa Command’s General Michael Langley shared a similar story regarding U.S. partners on the African continent.
“Even with our significant security cooperation initiative, that process is not any faster,” Langley said.
“The sense of urgency, especially in West Africa, across the Sahel, across Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin and Togo, they need equipment. They need weapons now,” he told lawmakers. “So, they make choices, and they make the wrong choices in going with the PRC or Russia for, especially, lethal aid.”
Such concerns about China’s weapons sales are not new and have persisted despite Washington’s overall dominance in arms exports.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the U.S. was the world’s top weapons exporter from 2018 to 2022, accounting for 40% of all arms exports. China ranked fourth, accounting for just over 5% of sales.
State Department data released earlier this year said arms sales by the U.S. government jumped even higher, growing by almost 50% in fiscal year 2022 to $51.9 billion, buoyed in part by the war in Ukraine. Commercial arms sales also increased, hitting $153.7 billion.
Still, U.S. defense and intelligence officials have been continually warning about the impact of arms deals between Beijing and African countries, in particular, for years. One report, in February 2020, noted China even then was supplementing the sales to African countries with military and technical training.
And SIPRI data, analyzed in a report issued this month by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, showed that China is gaining a considerable edge in sub-Saharan Africa, where Beijing recorded more than $2 billion in arms sales between 2010 and 2021, trailing only Russia.
More recently, between 2017 and 2020, Chinese arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa outpaced the United States by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1, the report said.
The commanders of CENTCOM and AFRICOM told lawmakers Thursday that the more China is able to make inroads with arms sales, the more the U.S. will struggle to work with countries that would otherwise choose to be partners with Washington.
“If there’s Chinese equipment there, we cannot integrate it with U.S. equipment,” Kurilla said.
“Whether that’s a radar or whether that’s an actual air defense system, we can’t let that touch our network based on what we know about the Chinese equipment,” he said, describing the Chinese outreach in the Middle East as aggressive.
But there are concerns from some researchers that the data, which give many cause for alarm, do not give a full picture.
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers program, said despite overall growth in Chinese arms exports over the past two decades, sales over the past five years fell by 23%.
“Expectations about Chinese arms exports based on the rapidly developing quality and advancement of the products that [they] have on offer haven’t really come true yet,” he said Wednesday at a webinar hosted by the Washington-based Stimson Center.
“We also see that China has not been able to become a major supplier to at least one region where you would expect it to have significant chances to develop as such, and that is in the Middle East,” Wezeman said. “We haven’t seen any major sales of things like submarines or combat aircraft to Saudi Arabia or Qatar or any of the other larger recipients in the Middle East. We’ve even seen that Chinese exports to Egypt have decreased.”