September 3, 2012

A CONSEQUENCE OF China’s rise as a global economic superpower has been the nation’s quest for resources, influence and riches in Africa, extracting minerals and food, building highways and schools, and selling cheap cellphones and pharmaceuticals. In July, President Hu Jintao pledged that China would lend $20 billion to African governments for agriculture and infrastructure.

The underside of this complex relationship is the arms trade. As The Post’s Colum Lynch reported Aug. 26, China has been flooding sub-Saharan Africa with assault rifles and ammunition, some of which have wound up in conflict zones in violation of U.N. sanctions.

China isn’t alone in this murky business — Russia and Ukraine are competing — but China does stand apart for challenging U.N. authority and seeking to curtail investigations that might shed light on its arms deals. China, subject to sanctions by the European Union after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, has a philosophical aversion to sanctions, although it has gone along with many of those imposed by the United Nations, which currently enforces arms embargoes against 13 countries or groups.

Chinese weapons continue to leak through the net. For example, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Sudan in 2004 after the brutal, forced relocation of millions of civilians from Darfur by armed militias. In 2011, Mr. Lynch reported, U.N. inspectors found Chinese-manufactured high- explosive incendiary cartridges in Darfur after Sudanese forces had battled rebels there. China refused to cooperate with an effort to identify the origin of the cartridges. Such an investigation might shed light on China’s undisciplined arms trade, which is driven by relentless mercenary interests and a desire to cozy up to oil-soaked and mineral-rich African leaders.

The trail of these weapons is often difficult to discern. Sanctions are busted in the middle of the night, weapons are diverted from state factories to illicit traders and sub-national militias. In the interests of cleaning up the nastier side of this business, the United Nations in July held a conference to negotiate the text of an arms trade treaty. Such a compact might bring more transparency and accountability to arms transfers, but in the end, no agreement was reached. The United States, the world’s largest arms exporter, has broadly supported the idea of a treaty.

China took a position at the conference that any arms trade treaty must not interfere with the sovereign right of nations to make their own decisions on arms transfers. By this logic, there’s no need to wait for a treaty. China’s leaders ought to realize that with global power comes global responsibility. They can act on their own to be more careful about where China’s weapons are sold and where they wind up.