China's Entry Into Att: Connecting the Dots

China's Entry Into Att: Connecting the Dots

China joining the Arms Trade Treaty, which is skewed towards arms exporters, does not spell good news for importer nation-states.

China’s recent accession to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has been projected by its national media as a decisive stance against the U.S.’s growing unilateralism. Casting such political rhetoric aside, it is critical to evaluate the strategic implications of this move. Can China leverage the excessive latitude conferred on arms exporters under the ATT to favour allies and pressurise rivals? This is of particular relevance for arms importing countries like India that have historically stayed away from the ATT.  


The ATT aims to establish common standards and reduce the illicit cross-border transfer of conventional arms, which is now a $70 billion industry. As opposed to being a disarmament framework that restricts the trade in arms, it constitutes a governance mechanism for regulating arms transfer. In fact, the ATT obliges state parties to assess whether the export of arms to a particular country has the potential to undermine peace, security, human rights, terrorism-related protocols, or other international obligations.

Although the treaty has been ratified by 94 states (with 107 signatories), it is widely criticised for the discretion placed on exporting countries to deny authorisation of arms trade. For instance, Article 7 stipulates that an exporting state party can deny authorisation if there is an overriding risk of any of the negative consequences envisioned under the treaty. The term ‘overriding risk’ is subject to the individual assessments of countries, rendering it easy for exporting states to approve transfers to friends and blockade supplies to foes.

The treaty also fails to clarify whether non-commercial transfers of weapons are exempt from its scope. If this is indeed the case, it is all too convenient for exporting states to favour their allies by transferring arms as ‘gifts’, irrespective of their human rights record. Indeed, China has already stated its intention to keep gifts and donations separate from the export regulation process. In its view, gifts cannot be subject to regulation through an international agreement.

Compounding the redundancy of this treaty, non-state actors have been excluded from its purview. This was done, despite repeated requests by countries such as India, Brazil, and Nigeria to prohibit transfers to unauthorised non-state actors. As a result, exporting states have the unfortunate liberty to interpret what constitutes as support for terrorism. Under these circumstances, India cannot be faulted for staying away from what it scathingly criticises as an ‘exporter’s treaty’.


The lack of an enforcement mechanism or interpretative authority under the ATT adds to the woes of the international community. Although the treaty is a legal instrument, state parties cannot be brought to court if they export arms to a human rights violator or a ‘war-monger’. In the absence of a tribunal to review decisions or issue legal sanctions, the ATT is nothing more than a paper tiger. It serves to perpetuate a discriminatory regime that denies arms to certain states, while others with equally dreadful records may be approved.

As a testament to the treaty’s failure, there has been no respite in the flow of illegal arms to terrorists, organised criminals, warring political factions as well as states with abysmal human rights compliance.  


In a highly publicised move, China has deposited its instrument of accession to the ATT with the U.N. Secretary-General. With the entry of such a major arms exporter, net importers like India need to be prepared for any strategic consequences.

Historically, India has always expressed concerns about the Chinese supply of weaponry to insurgent groups in the northeast and naxal areas. The fact that Pakistan is one of China’s biggest arms customers has done little to allay India’s fears. Against this backdrop, it needs to be evaluated whether China can leverage its discretionary power under the ATT to continue supplying to hostile actors, even while creating difficulties for the export of arms to the Indian state. India would not want the ATT to become an instrument in Chinese hands, constraining it from purchasing arms for security and self-defence.

India needs to review whether its interests would be best served by being a party to the treaty. Ratifying the treaty would have the attendant benefit of pushing for amendments that entail greater responsibilities on exporting countries. However, it is doubtful whether major powers would consent to an international enforcement authority under the ATT. Since arms trade is an essential foreign policy tool for creating military partnerships (and gain influence and profit), arms exporting countries are highly unlikely to relinquish their autonomy.  In fact, many of the current state parties do not even adhere to the annual reporting obligations under the ATT. Latest reports indicate that only 52 states have submitted their annual report for 2019.


Until the ATT is adopted universally, it would be more realistic for India to pursue bilateral agreements that advocate cooperative measures between importers and exporters. This can be based on international best practices such as marking of weapons, documentation of end-use and implementation of tracing mechanisms. Mapping and documentation requirements should be aimed at all the players in the supply chain, including shipping and packaging companies. Another potential area for cooperation would be capacity building and training for the detection and seizure of illicit arms.

From a macro perspective, it must be remembered that India’s heavy reliance on arms imports renders it strategically vulnerable. There is a pressing need for the defence industry to ramp up indigenisation. Although the country’s recent entry into the arms exporters' list is an encouraging sign, there is still a lot of groundwork to be done before the buzz words of ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharath’ and ‘vocal for local’ become ground realities. 


  • At present, the ATT has not really threatened India’s own procurement of major weapon systems for its armed forces, as most deals are struck bilaterally and intermediaries are not permitted.
  • The ATT perpetuates a discriminatory regime, favouring the exclusive club of arms exporting countries with very little policing powers. It could be a potential weapon for China to restrict arms exports to geopolitical rivals, including India.
  • India needs to look for solutions outside the ATT to prevent illicit transfer of weapons. This includes the transfer of small arms, mostly of Chinese origin, which enter through Pakistan and S.E. Asia.