China Power

Did China Sell Arms to Libya?

China’s denials that it OK’d state firms to sell arms to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime are believable but still troubling.

Personally, I'm ready to believe the Chinese government’s denial that it authorized state-owned arms companies to sell arms to the collapsing regime of Muammar Gaddafi – but I find that just as troubling as the alternative.

The Toronto Globe and Mail reported Saturday that Libyan security officials travelled to Beijing in mid-July based on documents found in Tripoli. There, they reportedly met with three major military-owned arms exporters, who offered to sell Gaddafi’s government about $200 million of small arms – their entire stock – in violation of a UN ban on supplying weapons to the regime. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, known for berating foreign journalists over contentious issues, responded to questions with unusual moderation, confirming the state-owned companies’ involvement but denying they had made delivery: ‘The Gaddafi regime sent people to China to make contact with certain individuals of relevant Chinese companies in July without knowledge of government departments,’ she said. ‘Chinese companies have not signed any military trade contracts with Libya, let alone sold arms to Libya.’ Rebel leaders in Libya claim to have taken new Chinese weapons from loyalist troops, but no firm evidence of the deal has emerged so far.

The news comes as China is making efforts to win over Gaddafi’s successors, and may complicate China’s hopes of renewing its oil contracts under the new regime. So, has China been shown to be playing both sides?

Very likely not – as we reported a few weeks ago, Chinese state-owned enterprises have a complicated relationship with the national government, and have proved themselves to be powerful independent actors even when wholly owned by the state. SOEs have often ignored or found ways around directives from the centre, and may very well have seen in Gaddafi not a chance to advance Chinese political interests, but merely a buyer likely to pay top dollar for exported firearms. Jiang Yu’s statement looks like a fairly frank admission that Beijing doesn’t have much power to limit China’s growing role in supplying weapons to conflict areas in the developing world (PDF download, see Chapter 6 for the arms trade).

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The government’s restrained response to questions about the alleged arms deals does make an interesting contrast with its frequently flamboyant responses to international controversy. The Chinese government has long had a tendency to react to criticism like an animal trapped in a corner – spouting fire at the Nobel Peace Prize committee over last year’s award to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo and picturesquely sending undercover police officers with umbrellas to disrupt filming at Tiananmen Square during last year’s anniversary.

Often, childish-looking responses like China’s attempt to give its own peace prize become the story, keeping the focus on embarrassing news for China long after it might otherwise have died down. But by quickly giving a half-confirmation to recent allegations, the Chinese government seems to have learned an important PR skill – waiting it out.