UK Arms Sales to China: Navigating Diplomatic and Ethical Storms

by | Jun 24, 2024

In 2023, the United Kingdom found itself at the center of a complex and contentious issue: the authorization of £25.6 billion worth of military-related equipment exports to China. This development, unveiled through figures published by the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), has thrust the UK’s trade policies, diplomatic relations, and ethical considerations into the spotlight. Despite an arms embargo imposed in May 2022, the UK has become China’s largest supplier of military-related equipment, raising significant questions and concerns.

The embargo in question is designed to prevent the export of complete weapons platforms, lethal weapons, and components for lethal weapons. Nevertheless, it does not cover non-lethal equipment and components intended for commercial use. This loophole has allowed the UK to continue exporting a range of military-related items to China, including ballistic test equipment, components for helmets, technology for weapon night sights, and, notably, uranium-233 and technology for nuclear reactors. The potential dual-use nature of this technology—both for nuclear energy and military purposes—has been a focal point of concern. Dr. Ian Fairlie, a former head of the Secretariat Committee on internal radiation risks, emphasized the risks, stating, “This technology can be used for nuclear energy or for military purposes and weapons.”

The Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesperson, Layla Moran, has been vocal in her criticism of the Government’s stance. She has urged the Government to “take a tougher stance on China, which includes controlling arms exports properly.” Moran’s call to action includes demanding an explanation from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak regarding the vast quantities of military equipment exported to China under his administration.

Surveillance concerns are another critical aspect of this issue. A significant portion of the £25.6 billion worth of exports consists of “information security equipment” and related technology, such as imaging cameras. Dr. Samuel Perlo-Freeman, research coordinator with Campaign Against Arms Trade, highlighted the potential misuse of such technology, stating, “The UK government has licensed £54 billion worth of information security equipment and software to China since 2022. This can cover a vast array of purposes, including interception of mobile communication and extraction of data from targeted devices.”

The concern is not unfounded. A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights details how China employs security systems for the oppression of Uyghur Muslims. The report describes an extensive network of surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and big data analytics used to monitor and suppress the Uyghur population. Although there is no concrete evidence that the UK’s exports are directly used for these purposes, the potential for misuse remains a significant ethical dilemma.

The UK’s diplomatic interactions with China further complicate the narrative. In June 2023, a Chinese military delegation visited the UK to discuss bilateral defense relations, with the Ministry of Defense commenting that “Discussions covered respective National Defense Strategies and the UK-China military relationship.” This visit was followed by a meeting between former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Chinese vice premier Han Zheng in Beijing two months later. These high-level engagements indicate a nuanced relationship that goes beyond mere trade metrics, suggesting an intricate balance between economic interests and diplomatic strategies.

Adding to the complexity, DBT figures reveal that the UK authorized the sale of military equipment to at least five other countries under arms embargoes, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Somalia, and Russia. These sales are justified as falling outside the scope of the embargoes, further highlighting the intricate balancing act the UK must perform in its international trade policies.

The UK’s decision to continue military-related exports to China, despite the arms embargo, underscores the inherent contradictions in international trade and diplomacy. On one hand, the Government emphasizes the importance of national security and human rights. On the other, it authorizes significant exports that could potentially undermine these very principles. The lack of transparency surrounding the recipients and specific purposes of these exports exacerbates the issue. Dr. Samuel Perlo-Freeman pointed out, “There is very little transparency around these licenses, which are described only as for ‘information security equipment’ and software.”

Looking to the future, the trajectory of UK-China military-related exports remains uncertain. Escalating concerns about China’s surveillance practices and its expanding nuclear arsenal may lead to increased scrutiny and potential tightening of export controls. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal grew from 410 warheads in January 2023 to 500 in January 2024, with expectations of further growth.

As global tensions rise, the UK Government may face mounting pressure to enhance transparency and impose stricter controls on military-related exports. Layla Moran’s call for tougher measures could gain traction, especially if public and political pressure intensifies. The geopolitical landscape is rapidly evolving, with China’s aggressive posturing towards Taiwan and the ongoing repression of Uyghur Muslims prompting the UK to potentially reevaluate its export policies.

In the midst of these developments, the UK’s approach to military-related exports will remain a critical area of focus. Balancing economic interests, national security, and human rights will be a challenging but essential aspect of future policy decisions. The UK’s stance on China appears to be a delicate balancing act, with diplomatic interactions and high-level engagements playing a crucial role in shaping future policies.

As the narrative unfolds, one thing is clear: the UK’s decision-making in this realm will continue to draw scrutiny and debate, reflecting the broader tensions and complexities of international trade, diplomacy, and ethical considerations in a rapidly changing world.