Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism (CST)

Report from Special Roundtable with the Saferworld and Chinese Delegation, 'Preventing the Proliferation of Conventional Arms and Promoting Human Security' (21st Nov 2011)


Summary report by Miwa Hirono

IAPS, CPI and CST co-hosted a special roundtablediscussion with Saferworld and its delegation from China. Saferworldbrought from China seven renowned scholars and military officers whospecialise in international security issues. Wehad discussions on the issue of the proliferation of small arms andlight weapons and its implications with respect to human security, onChina’s role in arms trade, and on forming of international regulationsof arms trade. Some of the main points that emergedfrom the discussions include the following:

  1.  Importance of international regulations on arms trade: While much attention has been paid to the issue of the weapons of mass destruction in international discussion forums, taking the number of casualties in war into account, small arms and light weapons have killed more people than weapons of mass destruction have. Therefore, it is extremely important to look at the issues of small arms and light weapons and of regulation of the international arms trade. In this sense, furthering our understanding of the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is essential, and China is supportive of a process of discussion leading to this outcome. If China is seeking to increase its soft power, the ATT should offer a great opportunity for China to play a leading international role.
  2. China is not the only problem: Our discussion identified the problem of China being used as a scapegoat for the use of imported arms in civil war. The United States sells the majority of weapons at large in international conventional arms trade, and China shares a smaller (7-9%) percent of the global weapons market. However, international media have paid much closer attention to Chinese arms sales and where the Chinese arms end up, than the arms from the Western countries (witness Sudan and Libya). It is important to recognise that this is not simply a Chinese issue. It has global implications and involves the major states in responsibility for the regulation of arms trade.
  3. Importance of transparent risk assessment system: However, this does not mean that China cannot play a more proactive role in controlling its international arms trade. Internationally sovereign states are permitted to buy and sell arms. The Chinese government strictly controls arms exports, and the industry is regulated to not sell arms to non-state actors. However, what may be needed is a more conflict-sensitive approach to ‘risk assessment’ in China’s regulation on arms sales. In other words, it is important to construct and apply a mechanism of risk assessment in gauging how likely small arms are to be transferred from a sovereign state to non-state actors. Although a strict arms export regulation is in place within China, China does not have an effective ‘risk assessment’ system that would prevent arms made in China from being transferred to other states. Providing more transparent information about where the arms are provided after the trade deal is made is important. Another issue was that China may have sold weapons to a sovereign state that later became a rebel group (Gaddafi‘s forces recently used weapons made in China to defend against the fall of his regime in Libya).China was criticised over this turn of events but this matter needs to be put into perspective.
  4. Ethics of arms trade: Although arms can be traded between sovereign states, should we simply accept this, when we know some states violate human rights by killing civilians? In other words, is it ethical to sell arms to such states? There is a number of issues emerging from this question. The first relates to the fundamental question in international relations—who has the right to decide what constitutes a ‘bad state’? The second question is more of a pragmatic one—asking the ethics question might unnecessarily politicise the issue, such as has been the case with the politicisation of human rights. Too much politicisation impedes a 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 non-state actors who may use them to kill or injure civilians, for example. Too much politicisation of the issue – by asking who is a legitimate state and who is not – makes discussion unproductive in order to achieve the ultimate aim of creating more effective arms control processes.
  5. Importance of comprehensive approach to human security: The arms trade is one of the many issues that relate to human insecurity. Of course there are so many other issues that cause human insecurity: poverty, hunger, development and terrorism, just to name a few. These are all extremely important problems, but the arms trade issue is a common link between them, and is arguably at the heart of human insecurity. Without the mechanism of better arms control, any attempt to improve development, for example, will be jeopardised or hampered. The Chinese government focuses on development as a means to address human security issues, but development is not a panacea with reference to the problem. In this sense, a comprehensive approach to human security is necessary.
Posted on Thursday 24th November 2011

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