UK Hypes China ‘Threat’ While Selling Country Billions in Military-Related Equipment

Last year saw a tripling in exports to Beijing of “dual use” items  defined as “civilian goods with a military purpose,” Mark Curtis reports. 

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attending Sun Military Awards in Central London, Feb. 6, 2020. (Andrew Parsons, No. !0 Downing, Flickr)

By Mark Curtis
Declassified UK

The U.K. government has authorized the sale of £2.6-billion worth of military and civilian equipment with potential military use to China in the past three years, government figures show.

Last year saw a tripling in exports to China of “dual use” items defined as “civilian goods with a military purpose.” Some £1.6-billion worth were authorised in 2020, compared to £526-million in 2019.

The increase coincided with the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. The exports have been approved while China is identified by the British government as “an increasing risk to U.K. interests” and “the biggest state-based threat to the U.K.’s economic security.” 

Most British exports were for “dual use” equipment but £53-million worth classified purely as “military” went to China over the three years 2018-20, including components for combat aircraft and military support aircraft. 

Other items licensed for use by China included military communications equipment and technology for air defense systems. 

The U.K. has banned the sale of “lethal” military equipment to China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. However, the British exports are likely to benefit China’s air force, which British ministers claim is a growing military threat. 

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1988. (Derzsi Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons) 

Defence Minister Jeremy Quin said in March that “the likes of Russia and China have studied our strengths in the air and begun developing the capabilities to not only counter but surpass us.”

Britain is also aiding China’s naval capacity. Ministers approved two export licences in 2019 for components for combat naval vessels that were identified as being for “end use by the [military] Navy.” 

The previous year, approvals were given to sell components for combat naval vessels and for military radars where China’s navy was also stated to be the end user. Other British exports likely to benefit the Chinese navy have included technology for combat naval vessels and for “military patrol/assault craft.” 

Chinese destroyer Xiamen, 2018. (Japanese Ministry of Defense, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

General Nick Carter, the head of the U.K. armed forces, now laments that Beijing commands “the largest maritime surface and sub-surface  now laments that Beijing commands “the largest maritime surface and sub-surface battle force in the world.”

The U.K. military identifies China as posing a particular challenge in the South China Sea, where Beijing is building bases on disputed atolls in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by other states in the region. 

In March, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said China was a “threat” in the contested sea. 

Chinese sailors on a guided missile destroyer at rails during a visit to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 2006. (U.S. Navy, Joe Kane)

U.K. support for the Chinese navy has come not only in the form of military exports. Declassified previously revealed that in 2015, the Royal Navy gave training to a Chinese maritime agency that was closely involved with occupying the disputed islands in the South China Sea. 

However, that support to Beijing took place when cooperation between the countries was increasing. At the time, the U.K. ’s then chancellor, George Osborne, spoke of “a golden decade for both of our countries” and of making Britain “China’s best partner in the West.”

December 2013: U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron speaking at the Shanghai trade exhibition. (Number 10, Flickr)

Six years on, the U.K. has radically altered its stance towards Beijing as British military planners seek to play a greater military role in Asia. The Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier is due to test China by sailing through the South China Sea later this year.

‘Information Security Equipment’

In addition to supporting the navy and air force, hundreds of licences have been approved by U.K. ministers for the sale of “information security equipment” and “imaging cameras” to China. 

It is not clear if such exports could aid the Chinese state’s domestic surveillance capabilities since the items are not specified in government documents. The U.K. ’s partial arms embargo on China forbids the export of equipment “which might be used for internal repression”.

The exports also raise concerns about China’s policy towards Tibet. Beijing considers Tibet to be an “autonomous region” of the country but many Tibetans have demanded an independent state since China invaded the territory in 1950.

Sam Walton, the chief executive of the Free Tibet campaign, said: “The Chinese government will use this military equipment to continue its repression in Tibet, to steal Tibetan homes and erase Tibetan culture. Selling such equipment is not how to stand up for human rights.”

He added: “We have seen fine words from this government condemning the repression in Tibet, the Uyghur genocide and the destruction on democracy in Hong Kong. But their actions once again show their words to be worthless. Britain cannot condemn China’s jackboot whilst heeling that same boot.”

The U.K.  government’s new military strategy says that China is “a systemic competitor” and that “the significant impact of China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness within the Indo-Pacific region and beyond will pose an increasing risk to U.K.  interests”.

“The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the U.K. and our allies”, it adds.

Mark Curtis is an author and editor of Declassified UK, an investigative journalism organization that covers Britain’s foreign, military and intelligence policies. He tweets at @markcurtis30. Follow Declassified on twitter at @declassifiedUK.  

This article is from Declassified UK.

18 comments for “UK Hypes China ‘Threat’ While Selling Country Billions in Military-Related Equipment

  1. Babyl-on
    June 11, 2021 at 12:42

    Western voices need to recognize that they no longer have any moral high ground.

  2. Vera Gottlieb
    June 11, 2021 at 11:46

    Bringing hypocrisy to a new shine???

  3. June 11, 2021 at 01:10


  4. June 11, 2021 at 00:49


  5. rosemerry
    June 10, 2021 at 15:51

    So the UK is not an “authoritarian state”?????? Ask the health minister and the NHS.
    Also, about “massacres”, you need not go back to 1989 and China to find such actions on the part of the UK and its allies.

  6. TimN
    June 10, 2021 at 08:43

    NO American politician has any business talking about “human rights.” Just staggering hypocrisy, and the media amplifies this nonsense.

  7. Zhu
    June 9, 2021 at 23:56

    I keep waiting for our Fearless Leaders in the West to re-name the South China Sea, so their complaints sound less absurd.

    • vinnieoh
      June 10, 2021 at 10:47

      Thanks for the chuckle, but then again you may be on to something. “Freedom Fries.” And of course, headchoppers in Syria re-designated as “freedom fighters.” So a theme is already established: “The Eastern Freedom Sea,” where no doubt many hapless souls will be “freed” from their mortal existence.

  8. Jared H
    June 9, 2021 at 22:59

    This article makes no attempt to analyze whether the anti-China hype is justified. Instead it repeats the views of the UK government and throws in an opinion from an activist at an NGO working to “free” Tibet. Readers of CN might be interested to know that the CIA funded the campaign to “free” Tibet for more than two decades paying millions annually to promote anti-China propaganda. That program ended in the early 70s, after the Church Committee, but like most CIA foreign propaganda programs it was taken over by the National Endowment for Democracy and done out in the open. NED now spends several millions on “democracy promotion” (propaganda) programs in China, including Tibet, according to US Congressional documents easily obtainable online.

    Walton, the NGO activist quoted, is even allowed to posit the existence of a “genocide” against the Chinese Uyghur population, with absolutely no attempt at analysis or confirmation. Forcing large numbers of people to attend re-education, although certainly repressive, is a far cry from from genocide. Genocide is extermination. It is death. It is killing. Mislabeling repression as genocide is merely an attempt by the Western oligarchies to build a human rights case that can be used as a pretext for military action against China. It’s the same old script we’ve seen from the West time and time again over the past few decades.

    If the West, and the UK in particular, were truly concerned with human rights and not doing business with “authoritarian” states, then their sales of actual weaponry, including bombs and missiles, to Israel and Saudi Arabia would not dwarf their sales of dual-use civilian equipment to China. The biggest weakness of this article is that it discusses UK sales of dual-use equipment to China as if it were occurring in a vacuum. But it is only part of UK global trade, much of which is far more hypocritical and enabling of repression, outright warfare and apartheid than anything currently happening in China.

      June 10, 2021 at 03:30

      The point of the article is British hypocrisy. While it accuses China of “genocide” it sells them military equipment.

  9. GM Casey
    June 9, 2021 at 18:13

    How peculiar the UK is—as in the past it was wonderful for them to sell all those war things—but oh my—-when China is now surpassing the UK in technology—then China is suddenly a horror? How silly the UK is though my favorite war story is Margaret Thatcher attacking the Falklands— and Ronald Reagan taking on Grenada- “What fools these mortals be.”

  10. Jeff Harrison
    June 9, 2021 at 18:11

    Oh, spare me, Britain. There has been no massacres of Uigers, and Hong Kong had no democracy when it was a crown colony. China agreed to continue capitalism in HK and they have. Frankly, neither the UK nor the US has any business trying to tell China what to do in their back yard and both the UK and the US have a sufficiently blood drenched past that they have no moral license to criticize others.

    • James Simpson
      June 10, 2021 at 03:09

      Well… true up to a point. Do you not believe in international laws or of international human rights? Just because the West has vast amounts of blood on its hands is insufficient reason to ignore the suffering of people in other states. You’re employing the reasoning of the 1930s appeasers in the UK and of USA’s isolationist America First campaign led by Charles Lindbergh which lets states do what they will with their own citizens. No man is an island and neither is any nation in the global community.

      • Tobin Sterritt
        June 10, 2021 at 15:25

        Correct me if I read the passage about letting “states do what they will with their own citizens” erroneously but to me it smacks of the R2P rhetoric that has been employed to cloak myriad violations of international law by the U.S. and its allies. I’m inclined to agree with Jeff.

      • rosemerry
        June 10, 2021 at 16:01

        Do you not believe in international laws or of international human rights?
        The whole point is that the USA and UK do NOT follow these laws, but their own decisions on individual rights as defined by them, not the UN or the rest of us.
        None of the “genocides” described by the forces of the West are caused by them. Check it out. Iraq, decades of sanctions and invasion, occupation-never considered as genocide by “us”. China lifting millions out of poverty is criticised, not praised, while its treatment of Uighurs, a minority with special extra rights is accused of genocide by anti-communist “Christian scholar Zenz” and believed with no investigation.
        Look at the huge US incarcerated population, and the shameful UK kidnapping and keeping in prison Julian Assange on the orders of the criminal USA for daring to expose their war crimes.

      • Alvin Ja
        June 10, 2021 at 20:07

        Western ‘progressives’ love to pontificate about sufferings of people in non-subservient states. Such “progressives” ‘ energies would be more equitably and more effectively spent on efforts to stop Western actions that cause massive deaths and “suffering of people in other states”.

        Western “progressives”/human rights imperialists live in the belly of the beast. Try fighting the beast and the massives harms inflicted on people in Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Libya, Syria, Haiti, Yemen, Iran, Iraq…… Human rights, indeed!

        Concern for human rights in other states is a reflection of self-righteous and racist arrogance of the Western world.

        Check this out: hXXps://

      • K.J.Noh
        June 10, 2021 at 22:31

        “Just because the West has vast amounts of blood on its hands is insufficient reason to ignore the suffering of people in other states.” Actually, the blood is still gushing, and the carnage–and the cover up–is ongoing.

        And let’s not forget, a large chunk of the “suffering of people in other states” is caused by the extractive, neocolonial, neoliberal policies of Western capitalism, or the sanctions and wars it is waging against countries that refuse to be part of it. So the focus should be at home, or preventing policies at home from affecting other countries-if you actually care about “people in other states”, rather than imagined, projected, or misconstrued wrongs.

        • James Simpson
          June 11, 2021 at 02:57

          “imagined, projected, or misconstrued wrongs” seems an attempt to ignore that suffering. The Left has a long and ignoble history of doing so. How did the US Left behave towards Nazi Germany between 1933-41? First it opposed fascism. Then, when Stalin signed his pact with Hitler, suddenly the US Communist Party et al were anti-war. After June 22, 1941 they changed their tune again to join the US government’s side. That leaves a nasty taste in the mouth and a distrust for Leftists who claim that the failings of supposedly socialist governments are ‘imagined, projected, or misconstrued’. Journalists and dissidents in China’s prisons are there not because of the West but because their government hates their political views.

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