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China eyes bigger role in growing Middle East arms trade

China is seeking a bigger role in the Middle East arms trade, with a major state-owned shipbuilder opening an office there and exporters showing hi-tech weapons " including an advanced killer robot ship " at a regional defence expo last week.

Military analysts say the move means China will be tailor-making more weapons for the Middle East, where the market has been growing because of widespread conflict.

China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) on Wednesday announced it had set up a representative office in Dubai to expand sales across the Gulf region.

The company, which developed and built China's first home-grown aircraft carrier, said the office was its first overseas and would focus on pursuing both military and civilian business opportunities.

One of the world's biggest arms markets, the Middle East accounted for 32 per cent of global weapons imports in the 2013-17 period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The region's arms imports grew by 103 per cent from the 2008-12 period to 2013-17 because most states were directly involved in violent conflict, the institute said.

Meanwhile, China's arms exports to the Middle East jumped 38 per cent in the 2013-17 period from the previous five years, and it is now the fifth-largest arms exporter in the world, supplying weapons to 48 countries.

Pakistan is the main buyer of Chinese weapons, but Middle Eastern nations are also looking to China. Since 2014, China has sold more than 30 CH-4 drones to countries such as Saudi Arabia, though its arms exports to the kingdom in 2017 totalled about US$20 million " compared to US$3.4 billion from the United States.

China has also sold its Wing Loong II drone to the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar has bought its ballistic missiles.

In addition to setting up a branch in Dubai, CSIC also had its unmanned 20-tonne Aegis-class destroyer on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi, which wrapped up on Thursday.

Dubbed the "mini Aegis" because it has an electronic system said to be as advanced as America's Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the JARI USV is a 15-metre vessel with a top speed of 42 knots and a range of 500 nautical miles.

Developed by CSIC's 716 Research Institute, it can be armed with a 30mm cannon combined with small surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, and lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes. It can also track underwater targets 7km away.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said the Chinese navy did not need the mini Aegis and CSIC was building the vessel " which could be used for the Gulf region's narrow waterway " for overseas markets.

"This reflects the fact that China's defence technology is advancing ... that it can assemble a product based on the specific needs of customers," he said. "China is improving its radar technology and can make smaller active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for the vessel."

Also on show in Abu Dhabi was China North Industries Group's new VT4 heavy infantry fighting vehicle " a third-generation main battle tank made for export. Other Chinese weapons on display included the MRTV 3000 frigate and C-602 medium-range cruise missiles.

China's increased arms sales to the Middle East have triggered concern from nations such as Israel and the US. Israel is worried about its exports to Iran, while the US has raised concerns about China's growing influence in the region through the weapons trade and its projects under the "Belt and Road Initiative".

Last year, the Royal United Services Institute said China was a significant supplier of military drones to Middle East countries, especially those that are barred from importing them from the US.

Jonathan Fulton, an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, said China's growing list of investments and assets in the Gulf and its large expatriate population would require some kind of military capacity to protect them.

"China can't rely on the US security umbrella indefinitely. On the Gulf side, there is always a need for external powers to contribute to security in such a competitive environment, and they'll expect China to take on a larger role if it wants to be taken seriously," he said.

But an active military presence would be a problem for China as it would trigger fears of China's power projection and a strong response from Washington as rivalry between the two countries intensifies.

"So it makes sense to develop this aspect of their Gulf presence on a smaller scale, through arms sales and joint training programmes," he said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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