Allegations that state-controlled Chinese arms manufacturers offered weapons to the Gaddafi regime as recently as July will likely harm efforts by Beijing to develop ties with a new government in Libya. Documents describing the proposed sales were found by a Graeme Smith, a reporter with the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, in a trash pile in a Tripoli neighborhood popular with Gaddafi officials. His story for the newspaper says one document outlines a July 16 meeting in Beijing between Gaddafi security officials and representatives of three Chinese arms manufacturers. The Chinese side offered weapons and ammunition worth at least $200 million and suggested the material could be shipped through South Africa and Algeria. The proposed weapons include hand-held surface-to-air missiles, truck-mounted rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles. While it is unclear if any of the arms were ever delivered, rebel officials asserted the documents are authentic, the Globe and Mail reported.
Smith’s story continues:
The documents suggest that Beijing and other governments may have played a double game in the Libyan war, claiming neutrality but covertly helping the dictator. The papers do not confirm whether any military assistance was delivered, but senior leaders of the new transitional government in Tripoli say the documents reinforce their suspicions about the recent actions of China, Algeria and South Africa. Those countries may now suffer a disadvantage as Libya’s new rulers divide the spoils from their vast energy resources, and select foreign firms for the country’s reconstruction.
(Update: On Monday afternoon a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman acknowledged that Gaddafi representatives traveled to Beijing in July looking to buy arms, but denied that any deals were made or weapons shipped, the Associated Press reported.)
The Libyan rebels’ gains have been an ongoing foreign policy headache for the Chinese government. China voted for an arms embargo on Libya approved by the UN Security Council in February, but later abstained from the U.N. Security Council vote that authorized establishing a no-fly zone in Libya and air strikes to protect civilians. Beijing has also been critical of the NATO-led air campaign, urging peace talks instead. In June a representative of the rebels traveled to Beijing for talks that were widely taken as a sign that China was hedging its bets in the event Gaddafi was toppled.
China has invested heavily in oil and other natural resources in Africa, though Libya itself supplied just 3% of China’s crude oil imports in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency. Still, there was a significant Chinese presence in Libya before the civil war, and China evacuated tens of thousands of workers as fighting broke out in February. Last month a rebel oil company official suggested in an interview with Reuters that a lack of support from Russia, China and Brazil might mean those countries’ oil firms would be cut out of deals. A Chinese Ministry of Commerce official later said that oil sales benefited both China and Libya, and called on rebel forces to respect China’s investments.
The Libyan rebels might forgive China’s late arrival to their side, especially if China were to offer significant postwar investment, but arms sales to Gaddafi would be harder to ignore. The New York Times quotes a senior NATO official who described the report as “highly unlikely,” but it also quoted a rebel spokesman describing “hard evidence” of weapons deals between China and Gaddafi.
China is generally considered to be a mid-level player in international arms sales. For 2006-2010 it ranked seventh in international arms sales, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, trailing the U.S., Russia, Germany, France, the U.K. and the Netherlands. But while the value of China’s arms sales may lag, it is often willing to supply weapons to combatants that other states avoid, such as Burma and Sudan. In 2006 Amnesty International reported that over the past 20 years China had “supplied a range of military, security and police equipment to countries with a record of gross human rights violations.”