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‘Caveat Emptor:’ State Dept. Mocks Russian, PRC Weapon Sales In ‘Buy American’ Pitch « Breaking Defense

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A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter heads for Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON: A top State Department official mocked Chinese and Russian international arms sales today, saying: “If we scratch the surface of the offers laid out by our adversaries we find failed systems, flawed training, false bargains.

“And it is important countries around the world understand the risks of choosing to procure systems from China or from Russia,” Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, said in a speech.

Cooper’s pitch to Buy American came with a series of biting examples of second-rate Chinese gear sold to African and Middle Eastern countries, two regions where Beijing has made inroads that have deeply concerned Washington.  

Cooper pointed to four Chinese-made Harbin Z-9 helicopters purchased by Cameroon in 2015, one of which crashed soon after purchase. Similarly, Kenya bought a handful of Chinese-made Norinco VN4 armored personnel carriers, “vehicles that China’s own sales representative declined to sit inside during a test firing,” he claimed. “Since going ahead with the purchase regardless, sadly dozens of Kenyan personnel have been reportedly killed in those vehicles,” Cooper said, adding “caveat emptor!” 

He also slammed Chinese CH-4 armed drones, which various countries in the Middle East have found “to be inoperable within months, and are now turning around to get rid of them… We have seen countries around the world leap at the chance to obtain high-tech, low-cost defensive capabilities only to see their significant investments crumble and rust in their hands,” Cooper said.

Ironically, Cooper’s speech comes on the heels of President Trump’s persistent criticism of America’s closest allies in Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan and South Korea for not spending enough and not paying enough for American troops in their countries, leading to concern over America’s dedication to its allies. Washington is also currently consumed with accusations by multiple US government officials that President Trump tied military financing (FMF and FMS) to Ukraine in return for Kiev’s investigating his chief political rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, who was working for a Ukrainian energy firm.

A summary transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is being held up as evidence of the Trump administration’s push to trade the money for an investigation, something a CIA whistleblower, along with State Department and National Security Council witnesses have alleged amounted to a shakedown to smear Trump’s primary rival in the 2020 presidential election.

Allies, of course, continue to line up to buy American kit. In fiscal 2019, the State Department cleared $55 billion in weapons sales overseas, flat from the previous year but still up markedly from $41 billion in 2017, making the US by far the biggest weapons dealer on the planet, followed by Russia. China is further back in the pack of global arms merchants, but is slowly catching up.  

Sales by China and Russia, which come with caveats and questionable financing, are a major concern for Washington and its allies, who worry about the long-term effects of such deals. (Just read our coverage of Russia’s sale of S-400 anti-aircraft batteries to NATO ally Turkey.) “Through a combination of cut-price systems such as unmanned aerial systems, predatory financing mechanisms, and sometimes outright bribery, China is using arms transfers as a means of getting its foot in the door,” Cooper said, “a door that, once opened, China quickly exploits both to exert influence and to gather intelligence.”

Members of Congress have drafted a series of sanctions packages that have yet to be enacted, but would take aim squarely at Turkey’s defense cooperation with fellow NATO members. But the Trump administration has so far spared Turkey from sanctions called for under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, which demand sanctions against any country that buys weapons from Russia. 

India, a decades-long client of Russian defense equipment, has also reportedly purchased several S-400 batteries, but Washington’s cultivation of India as a partner to counter the rise of China and its own territorial ambitions has insulated them from CAATSA penalties.

Cooper didn’t touch on those issues, and only made a glancing reference to perhaps the most controversial arms export of the Trump administration, the Emergency Certification of billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia earlier this year, in response to the threat posed by Iran. Congress tried and failed to block the sale, which Cooper said “contributes to doubts about the US as a supplier in times of need.”  

The US has also sent Patriot and THAAD batteries to Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, along with a new air wing to protect the kingdom and deter Iran, defense officials have said, despite Saudi having the third largest defense budget in the world, trailing only the US and China. Since May, the US has sent 14,000 troops to the Middle East, even as President Trump says he is reducing the US presence in the region and trying to end the so-called “endless wars.”

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