By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has almost doubled its weapons exports in the past five years, a military think tank said on Monday, as the world's third-largest weapons exporter pours capital into developing an advanced arms manufacturing industry.
In 2011 to 2015, China's arms imports fell 25 percent compared with the previous five year period, signaling a growing confidence in the country's homegrown weaponry despite key areas of weakness, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report on global arms transfers.
Chinese exports of major arms, which excludes most light weaponry, grew by 88 percent in 2011-2015 compared to the earlier five-year timeframe, SIPRI said.
The country still accounted for only 5.9 percent of global arms exports from 2011-2015, well behind the United States and Russia, by far the world's two largest arms exporters.
"The Chinese until ten years ago were only able to offer low tech equipment. That has changed," said Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. "The equipment that they produce is much more highly advanced than ten years ago, and attracts interest from some of the bigger markets."
China has invested billions developing its homegrown weapons industry to support its growing maritime ambitions in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and also with an eye toward foreign markets for its comparatively low cost technology. Its total military budget in 2015 was 886.9 billion yuan ($141.45 billion), up 10 percent from a year earlier.
The U.S. and Russia saw weapons exports grow by 27 percent and 28 percent respectively, while exports of major arms by France and Germany, the fourth and fifth largest weapons exporters, fell over the same period.
Most of China's arms sales went to countries in Asia and Oceania, the report found, with Pakistan accounting for 35 percent, followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Pakistan is a key Chinese ally, and close military ties between the two countries has sometimes stoked tensions with neighboring India, which is seeking to boost its own homegrown weapons industry.
China still needs to import weapons including large transport aircraft, helicopters as well as engines for aircraft, vehicles and ships, according to the report.
China, the world's second largest economy, signed deals in 2015 to buy air defense systems and two dozen combat jets from Russia, its largest arms supplier.
(Editing by Lincoln Feast)