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The global arms race between the US and China is devastating Africa and the Middle East

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The global arms race has never been more lucrative. America and China are engaged in unprecedented levels of spending around the world to influence and shape global affairs. The effects are devastating on civilians but Washington and Beijing insists they’re “stabilizing” nations. It’s one of the deadliest myths of the 21st century.

Saudi Arabia has executed at least 100 people since January, half of which were for non-violent drug offences. The country’s bombing campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and exacerbated a humanitarian catastrophe in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

None of these facts have any bearing on America’s attitude towards its close Middle Eastern ally. Between 2010 and 2014, both countries reached $90 billion of weapons sales that included planes and armored vehicles. Despite calls from activists to halt the huge increase in arms deals between Western nations and Saudi Arabia, Riyadh claims it fears the rise of Iran and Islamic State and is now the world’s biggest defense importer.

The effect on regional violence will be devastating with the Obama administration overseeing the largest expansion of weapons’ dealing in history. Washington is bribing Israel with arms to accept the Iranian nuclear deal (and despite the bluster Netanyahu will eventually accept it) while continuing to sell weapons to the dictatorial Egyptian regime. Jordan is receiving precision-guided missiles for its fight against Islamist militants and Bahrain, even after brutally crushing a pro-democracy movement in 2011, knew it would still receive military support from America.

A nuclear agreement between Washington and Iran is undeniably better than a military conflict but Muslim civilians in the region will pay a steep price. The Wall Street Journal captured the mood with its headline: “US seeks to ally concerns of allies on nuclear deal”. This is code for bribing autocracies with more weapons:

“The U.S. is specifically looking at ways to expedite arms transfers to Arab states in the Persian Gulf and is accelerating plans for them to develop an integrated regional ballistic missile defense capability, a senior administration official said.”

When US Secretary of State John Kerry talks of Tehran increasing instability in the Middle East, it’s worth remembering who is introducing so much defense equipment into the region. Arming dictatorial allies is one of the darkest legacies of the Obama era.

Defense contractors are excited about the prospect of increased tension in the Middle East. Insecurity leads to strong business. Defense company Lockheed Martin is predicting that foreign sales will soon represent 20 percent of its business. In a sign of its seriousness, the firm opened the Center for Innovation and Security Solutions in Abu Dhabi in late 2014 to assist the United Arab Emirates and design more efficient ways to partner with US allies. Another firm, Raytheon, is seeing increased sales with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and the UAE.

Grant Rogan, CEO of Blenheim Capital and a military sales expert, recently told Foreign Policy that American weapons’ deals could soon skyrocket. “The Saudis and Emiratis don’t trust the [Iranian nuclear] deal, no matter what the deal is”, he said. He expected advanced radar systems “happening in Saudi substantially faster if there’s no deal — or if it’s a deal that doesn’t defang Iran.”

However, America’s dominance of global arms sales is being challenged like never before. China is especially appealing to developing countries, keen on buying “military set meals”, a starter pack of basic defense gear. South Sudan has been a willing buyer despite the regime pursuing a brutal war against its civilian population. Although Beijing has spent billions of dollars building infrastructure in countless areas around the world in the last decade, including Africa, growing environmental, debt and labor issues have increased skepticism towards China’s development model.

“China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic nations”, writes journalist Howard French. Washington claims to believe in good governance and freedom of speech but its policies have entrenched authoritarianism across Africa under the guise of “fighting terrorism”.

China and America are now engaged in a race for African dollars, a continent with resources and a growing middle class to embrace and exploit. Founder of military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, works with Frontier Services Group alongside China’s biggest state-owned firm, Citic Group, to get some of the estimated $1 trillion Beijing intends to spend in Africa by 2025.

Despite China’s partial colonization of Africa, Washington has accelerated covert operations in the last years to support, train and arm militaries and rebel groups. American journalist Nick Turse, writing in his new bookTomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, explains how George W. Bush and particularly Barack Obama have engendered a pivot towards Africa “spanning almost fifty countries”. These include “drone assassinations in Somalia, a proxy war in Mali, shadowy ops in Chad and antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea.” US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is a secretive organization with little strategic depth.

The effect, like in the Middle East, has been to hugely destabilize an already fragile continent. At an Obama-led US-Africa summit in Washington in 2014, African leaders were desperate for new weapons to fight wars that neatly fit with Washington’s “war on terror”. Think Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram, one example of a US-backed army committing gross abuses of human rights in its battle against extremism.  The deadly reality is that American efforts have failed spectacularly, causing suffering for African civilians and increasing the chances of blowback on the American homeland.

The Global Peace Index released its 2015 report and found an increasingly unstable world. Arms dealing by China and America are directly contributing to this result and yet their involvement in this deadly trade is too rarely acknowledged.

Past the rosy headlines of an Iranian and American détente lies the grim reality for millions of civilians in Africa and the Middle East. For them, Washington and Beijing will continue selling weapons to leaders for whom the ideas of democracy and peace are foreign concepts.

Antony Loewenstein

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent, investigative journalist who has written for the New York Times, Guardian and many others, author of “My Israel Question” and “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe,” amongst others, writer of the documentary “Disaster Capitalism” and will be releasing a book on the global “war on drugs” in 2019. He’s been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 2003.

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10 Responses

  1. Bandolero on July 23, 2015, 2:41 pm

    I think the article is grossly misleading because it suggests a moral equivalence between the crimes of the predatory US empire and it’s allies and lackeys in crime, like Britain, France, Israel and the wahhabi regime of the Sauds, and the PR China selling legitimate governments weapons to protect themselves and their people against the wars of aggression and other regime change attempts of the lackeys and vassals of the US empire.

    See Sudan: for more than five decades the US destabilized Sudan to split up the country for getting the oil there. And Israel and it’s lobby was first buddy of the US empire there with bloody false propaganda campaigns like “Save Darfur.” So, after about half a century that the US sowed terror in Sudan it had success: the country split up. But, when that moment – for which the US and Israel have worked so long – finally came the whole country was not a nice price, but a wreck – both, the rest of old Sudan and the new South Sudan. So the US wasn’t interested in owning that burden anymore and Sudan and South Sudan turned to China for help. China did help, both of the Sudanese governments: with investments, with credit and with arms to be able to claim authority over the land the governments are responsible for.Of course, without the authority of government the country would sink even lower, regardless whether the government – which was installed by decades of US terror support in the case of South Sudan- is considered to be a better or a worse one. And now comes Loewenstein and says China supports a bad government. It looks like a joke.

    And elsewhere in Africa it’s similar: China built houses in Libya and invested in oil. The US and it’s lackeys destroyed the country with war and terror. And Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, one country after another destroyed by the US and it’s allies from Israel, NATO and GCC. A similar thing happened in Nigeria, even as Israels lackey Jonathan Goodluck ruled there: thanks to the western and Wahhabi terror support, Biafra – an early version of the completely lying western Save Darfur campaign – is everywhere in Nigeria while China builds a railway for Nigeria. And don’t forget Somlia. The US and it’s western friends were successful there in disempowering “communist dicator” Siad Barre and the result is: it looks like everywhere where the US had it’s fingers in. Elsewhere it’s like in Ruanda, where a US proxy war against French proxies killed hundred thousands. And Angola, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, El Salvador and so on and so on. But, of course, Antony, you blame China, as if there was a moral equivalence between doing business with foreign governments like China does and destroying countries like the US does it. You must be kidding.

    • Keith on July 23, 2015, 4:55 pm

      BANDOLERO- “I think the article is grossly misleading….”

      I agree. To frame this as some sort of arms export competition is nuts. The US is engaging in massive military operations and proxy warfare in order to prevent China from doing business in Africa. The primary emphasis is on oil which the US seeks to control for geostrategic reasons. Thomas Mountain explains the reality of South Sudan:

      “Its all about oil. The USA wants China out of its only oil field in Africa and will pay what it takes to get whomever to do its dirty work, whether the Contra “rebel army” in Nicaragua 30 years ago (back then it was Reagan’s War) or Riek Machar’s “rebel army” fighting “Obama’s War” in South Sudan today.

      Lets face it, when it comes to the USA’s “national interests”, as in preventing Chinese access to African oil, there is no limit to the crimes the USA will instigate and fund, no matter how many millions of Africans are left to rot in refugee camps or worse, starving in the bush in South Sudan.” (Thomas Mountain)

      • Keith on July 23, 2015, 5:12 pm


        A quote and link on South Sudan from Glen Ford and the Black Agenda Report.

        “For decades, the United States and Israel sought to bring about the fracturing of Sudan, which had been, geographically, the largest nation in Africa. Secession of the South was a special project of Israel, whose most enduring and fundamental foreign policy is to spread chaos and dissention in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Sudan, under the political control of the mostly Muslim North, joined the Arab League immediately upon independence, in 1956. Israel has sought to destabilize Sudan ever since, both to strike a blow at “Arabized” Africans and to curry favor among Christians on the continent.

        Dismembering Sudan became a U.S. obsession under Bill Clinton, who bombed a pharmaceuticals factory in the capital city, Khartoum, in 1998, falsely claiming it was a chemical weapons facility. After 9/11 Sudan moved to the top of President Bush’s enemies list. The U.S. and Israel provided arms and training to rebel groups in Darfur, in the west of the Sudan, fueling another front of civil war.

        So, what have the South Sudanese won? Certainly, not independence. It’s just another oil rich, neocolonial spot on the map of U.S. empire.” (Glen Ford)

    • ritzl on July 23, 2015, 5:49 pm

      Thank you, Bandolero.

    • Donald on July 24, 2015, 7:41 am

      The article seems fair to me. Lowenstein agrees with you about the U.S., but doesn’t have your starry-eyed vision of China’s role.

      • Bandolero on July 24, 2015, 1:06 pm

        I don’t have starry-eyed vision of China’s role. I know the Chinese way of doing business is about making money and often causes a lot of problems for many people.

        However, I nevertheless see a huge difference between Chinese and US business customs, especially in regard to arms sales and involvement in armed conflicts, and that difference isn’t reflected in this article here.

        China is doing business with governments, be them good or bad, from building stuff and infrastructure to arms, and often gets natural resources in return. In this way China is quite similar to the classic colonial and imperial powers, from US over France to the Britain. The main difference is not that the US, Britain and France do these things, too. The main difference is that the US and their imperial comrades are also in the business of murdering foreign heads of states, armed separatism and regime changes, often ostensibly for lofty goals like promoting democracy, human rights and good governance, but in reality to overthrow whatever government they dislike, and that US-led behaviour is exactly what destroys countries and what’s most devastating for much of Africa, Western Asia and many other countries of the third world. See eg Somalia, Ruanda, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen for the effects of the US behaviour of trying to do regime changes whereever it pleases the US rulers and their buddies.

        China is not engaged in such armed regime change business, but helps legitimate governments, however odious they may be, to keep their power, and that’s a big difference, whatever odious behaviour the Chinese employ otherwise.

      • Keith on July 24, 2015, 1:39 pm

        BANDOLERO “…and that US-led behaviour is exactly what destroys countries and what’s most devastating for much of Africa, Western Asia and many other countries of the third world. See eg Somalia, Ruanda, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen for the effects of the US behaviour….”

        That is exactly right. Whatever one thinks about Chinese business practices, they are not currently waging a “long war” against much of the world. The empire is on a rampage, destroying any country not sufficiently subservient to the imperial agenda. China is doing nothing of the sort. There is no equivalency, and to suggest that the conflict in South Sudan is the consequence of the US and China competing for arms sales is profoundly dishonest and, in my view, de facto imperial apologetics.

      • Bandolero on July 24, 2015, 6:35 pm


        The empire is on a rampage, destroying any country not sufficiently subservient to the imperial agenda.

        Yes, that’s the core of the problem. And, of course, any ruler doing major business with a competitor of the empire, like China, Russia or Iran, is not considered “sufficiently subservient to the imperial agenda” and their country a candidate for destruction by plots of the empire.

        So, whenever a ruler does major business projects with China, or Russia or Iran, the rulers next logical question for his Chinese business partners is: You made the best commercial offer for our business project, but I know, if I give the project to you, I will be subject of imperial regime change plans and my country will be a candidate for destruction by the empire, so can you sell me some effective weapons to help defend myself and my country against attacks from Washington and it’s lackeys?

        That China, in cooperation with Russian partners, has now good answers to this question, is indeed partly a sign of an arms race popping up as a side effect of growing Chinese industrial competitiveness. One may see it the problem as a side effect of a historic competitive power transition from the US to China, usually called the “Asian century.” But, at least so far, there is no moral equivalence, but a huge difference between US and Chinese arms exports, the difference between aggressor and defender, because the basic global problem currently is – like you correctly said – that the “empire is on a rampage, destroying any country not sufficiently subservient to the imperial agenda.”

  2. mcohen. on July 27, 2015, 8:15 am

    Well president obama has arrived in ethiopia,that is a good thing and i hope that his efforts will be rewarded.may he blow the kudu horn and summon those that believe in peace to follow him….that is his destiny… bring change and hope to africa and the middle east.

  3. Helena Cobban on July 27, 2015, 12:08 pm

    Setting this up as some kind of trade/moral equivalence between US arms exports and Chinese arms exports, as both Lowenstein and your headline writer do, is highly problematic. The major international database on international arms transfers is run by the Swedish organization SIPRI. Their most recent report on the matter (through the end of 2014) is here (PDF). In it, you can learn that in the 5-year period 2010-2014, the US originated 31% of global arms transfers– and China, a “whopping” 5%.

    I’m sure if you dig deeper into the SIPRI database than I have time to here, you could find the figures for arms transfers to Africa and the ME.

    But get real, people! This is not any kind of an “equivalent” situation– and even further from being an “arms race” as the headline writer described it. It is more like an arms-selling free-for-all in which each big (government-backed) US company is trying to outsell both its US and its non-US competitors; and I imagine it’s the same on the Chinese side, though they have nothing like the market share that the US has. (Lowenstein might also have noted that Russia far outflanks China in this arms-selling business, with 27% of the market share, worldwide.) In several cases, China and the US were probably supplying the same side in a conflict– and I certainly know that in several conflicts, e.g. in Iraq, megalethal US arms have been exported to both sides.

    So enough with the talk of a “US-China arms race”. It may fit handily into the “fear of rising China” theme that arises frequently in the US MSM, but we shouldn’t have to deal with it here on Mondo… Since the vast majority of Mondo readers are US citizens, surely our major task is to rein in the bellophilic and arms-addicted behavior of our own government, and urge non-military approaches to international problems wherever and whenever we can– rather than play into fears of some almost wholly imagined international “arms race”?

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