Chinese Missiles Bound for Terrorists Raise Concerns on China

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that in January US and Yemeni forces seized ten sophisticated heat-seeking Chinese-made antiaircraft missiles on an Iranian dhow bound for a Shiite terror group, an Iranian proxy, in northwestern Yemen. These “extremely worrisome” shoulder-fired weapons are highly sought after by terror groups and represent a major threat to military and civilian aircraft alike.

These weapons, Chinese QW-series man-portable air-defense systems, or manpads, had markings indicating they were manufactured by the China National Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation, a Chinese state enterprise. American and Yemeni officials also reported finding other weapons hidden on the vessel, including 95 RPG-7 launchers, 17,000 blocks of Iranian C-4 plastic explosives, Russian-made night-vision goggles, and 379,000 cartridges for PK machine guns and Kalashnikov rifles. The Times’s headline read, “Seized Chinese Weapons Raise Concerns on Iran.” It should have read, “Seized Chinese Missiles Raise Concerns on China.”

Up until the middle of last decade, Beijing made sure its manpads did not leave the control of the armed forces of its client states, like Pakistan and Iran. Then, a little more than a half decade ago, Beijing evidently made a strategic decision to play a more aggressive game. Its manpads started showing up in the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq.

And in the last year or so, Chinese manpads have also been sighted in other locations. In addition to the hold of the Iranian dhow, they have been found in the arsenal of the United Wa State Army in Burma, a private army, and in the hands of Syrian rebels. Images of Syrian rebels holding Chinese FN-6 manpads were shown on CCTV 13, one of the channels of the Chinese state broadcaster. The FN-6 is a new system and few, if any, of them are on the black market, suggesting direct Beijing involvement. The CCTV footage makes it clear Beijing at least knows what is going on.

Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based intelligence analyst writing in Jane’s Intelligence Review, believes the transfers of manpads to the United Wa State Army “could not take place without explicit sanction from senior levels of China’s national security establishment.” Because these high-profile weapons are made by a large Chinese state enterprise, that conclusion seems right. 

Moreover, we know, from WikiLeaks, that the Bush administration repeatedly complained to Beijing about the sale of its small arms to the Iranians and that these sales included manpads used against US forces. In these circumstances, Chinese officials in fact knew about the sales. In any event, they cannot deny responsibility for what their state entities have done—and continue to do—in their top-down authoritarian system.

The international behavior of the Chinese state is getting worse, not better, over time. Beijing increasingly sees itself as an adversary of the existing global order, something evident by its widening sales of dangerous weapons to terrorists and assorted non-state actors. This trend has no happy ending.

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