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China is using a massive international military competition as “a marketing and advertising show” to sell its weapons and military goods, as the country seeks to solidify its place as one of the world’s largest arms exporters.

The Chinese component of the International Army Games kicked off Sunday in the country’s remote far western province of Xinjiang. The exercises, which will run until August 11, with a separate amphibious event in coastal province of Fujian, bring together military representatives from across the world.

According to Chinese state media, the countries involved in the games will use Chinese or Russian-made military equipment for many of the competitions, giving them an opportunity to try before they buy.

“It’s a chance for China to flex its military might to the world. In turn, that will help drive Chinese commercial opportunities,” said Nick Marro, analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Infantry fighting vehicle from China competes in the Suvorov Attack Race as part of the International Army Games 2018 on July 30 in Korla, Xinjiang.
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Infantry fighting vehicle from China competes in the Suvorov Attack Race as part of the International Army Games 2018 on July 30 in Korla, Xinjiang.

The Chinese government is among world leaders in weapons exports, trailing only the US, Russia, France and Germany, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Information provided by the Institute shows that between 2008 and 2017, China sold more than $14 billion in arms to governments overseas, including more than $1 billion in the last year.

Top Chinese military customers including Pakistan and Bangladesh are taking part in this year’s exercises, as well as other buyers such as Myanmar and Iran.

Activists have pointed out many countries buying China’s weapons have notorious human rights records, including political repression, mass corruption and ethnic cleansing.

Homepage of the International Army Games 2018 website.
Homepage of the International Army Games 2018 website.

Key customers

In an article republished on the Chinese military’s official People’s Liberation Army news site, Chinese military expert Song Zhongping said the games were a “marketing and advertising show for military industrial products.”

Pakistan, which will be taking part in the land and air exercises in Xinjiang, is the biggest customer for Chinese arms, with more than a third of Beijing’s military exports in 2017 going to Islamabad.

Some of their purchases are among China’s most high-tech, including tracking systems for nuclear missiles and joint development of the JF-17 jet fighter, according to a report from the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Venezuela, which bought an undisclosed number of C-802 anti-ship missiles from China in 2017, will take part in the Seaborne Assault competitions in Fujian.

China is also hoping to attract potential purchasers from other neighboring countries taking part in the competition.

The event was founded by Russia and co-organized by China. This year’s exercises will be held in seven different countries around the world over the course of the two weeks.

The majority of events will take place in Russia with a few held in China and Kazakhstan. Belarus, Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia will each host a single competition.

At the opening ceremony for the army games in Russia, People’s Liberation Army tanks, rocket launchers and helicopters were used during live fire sections.

During the Russia portions of the competition, Chinese H-6k bombers, J-10A fighter jets and Type 96B main battle tanks will be on display.

Diplomatic leverage

Experts say the event’s real benefit to China isn’t derived from arms sales, but in diplomatic gains.

“China is using arms exports as an instrument of its foreign policy to create strategic dependencies,” Michael Raska, a military studies professor at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said in a podcast last year.

“They are not motivated by profit, they are motivated to align (others) with Chinese foreign policy.”

Sales of China’s arms to Asian countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh increase its influence in the region because they become dependent on Beijing to service military hardware.

But Chinese arms sales to more distant countries, such as Venezuela or Iran, are used as a way to rile the United States, said Raska.

CNN’s James Griffiths contributed to this report