But China has stood apart from other major arms exporters, including Russia, for its assertive challenge to U.N. authority, routinely refusing to cooperate with U.N. arms experts and flexing its diplomatic muscle to protect its allies and curtail investigations that may shed light on its own secretive arms industry.
The stance highlights the tensions between China’s responsibilities as a global power and its interests in exploiting new markets. It has also raised questions about whether Chinese diplomats have a grip on the reach of the country’s influence in the arms industry beyond its borders.
Beijing has responded to the disclosures not by enforcing regulations at home but by using its clout within the Security Council to claw back the powers of independent U.N. arms investigators. Those efforts have helped undercut the independence of U.N. panels that track arms trading with Iran and North Korea.
“This is really a case of unbridled capitalism, and I think the Chinese government is not even always aware of what these companies are doing,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has been tracking Iran’s and North Korea’s procurement of nuclear technology from Chinese companies. When the Chinese are “confronted with evidence,” Albright said, “they respond very defensively and legalistically.”
China has blocked the release of embarrassing U.N. revelations of illicit arms transfers, stopped the reappointment of an arms expert who uncovered Chinese weapons and sought to restrict the budget to fund investigations. It has also consistently refused to allow U.N. investigators to trace the origin of Chinese weapons discovered in war zones.
The country’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this report, but its representatives have repeatedly denied accusations that the country is violating sanctions.
More broadly, China has made clear that it has a philosophical aversion to sanctions, which were imposed on Beijing by the European Union following the Tiananmen Square events in 1989, and that it believes most major political disputes are better addressed through diplomatic talks.
Council diplomats say China has gone along with the proliferation of U.N. sanctions panels in order to maintain a cooperative relationship with the West, particularly the United States. Today, the United Nations enforces arms embargoes against 13 countries or groups, including the Taliban, al-Qaeda and seven African countries.
But China’s willingness to play along has been tested over the past decade as it has transformed itself from the world’s largest importer of arms to a major producer, with domestic production exploding by 95 percent from 2002 to 2006 and from 2007 to 2011, making it the sixth-largest arms exporter in the world.
The trend has been most sharply felt in sub-Saharan Africa, where China, a major presence at arms trade shows in Africa, sells weapons to 16 countries, more than any other top arms trader from outside the region.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it now accounts for 25 percent of the market, not including South Africa. (SIPRI notes that a number of large Ukrainian and Russian arms sales to Sudan and Uganda are likely to force China out of the top ranking in 2012.)
“Africa is quite an important market for the Chinese arms industry because it is a stepping stone” to becoming a first-tier arms exporter, said Pieter D. Wezeman, the chief author of the SIPRI report, noting that China’s offerings are far too inferior to compete in the industrialized arms market. “They have to start somewhere,” he said.
Some of those arms have been diverted to conflict zones under U.N. sanctions.
In May 2011, a team of U.N. arms experts collected several high-explosive incendiary cartridges in the Darfur town of Tukumare, where Sudanese armed forces had recently battled rebels, according to a confidential report that was produced by three U.N. arms experts and first publicly disclosed by the London-based newsletter Africa Confidential.
The cartridges — which were manufactured in China in 2010, more than five years after the arms embargo first went into effect — were compatible with weapons systems used in Sudan’s Russian-made Mi-24 attack helicopters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. But China rebuffed requests by a U.N. panel to attempt to trace the cartridges back to their manufacturer.
It was not the first time.
A review of Chinese compliance compiled by SIPRI showed that China has routinely provided panel members with incomplete answers when confronted with evidence of Chinese arms in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Sudan and Somalia, where China declined a request from a U.N. panel that discovered 15 Chinese RPGs in the hands of Somali pirates.
It is in the case of Darfur, where Chinese ammunition has become a feature of annual U.N. reports, China has moved most aggressively to clamp down on a panel’s findings.
In 2011, China blocked the release of the Darfur panel’s report, then singled out the arms expert, Holger Anders of Germany, who had uncovered boxes of Chinese cartridges, and dismissed his work as unprofessional.
“An undergraduate student could have done better work; nothing was verified; it was nothing more than hearsay,” China’s delegation told the panel, according to an account provided by an official familiar with the matter. Anders responded by presenting the Chinese with an envelope filled with cartridges and asking them to analyze them themselves, according to the official, who declined to speak for the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Chinese diplomats took the shells, but never responded.
In January 2011, China placed a hold on the U.N. decision to renew Anders’s contract, effectively shutting him out of the Security Council panels. Anders has since gone to work for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast.
U.S. and European officials have sought to persuade China to take a more conciliatory approach in Darfur, saying that China was needlessly drawing attention to itself even though other countries such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were supplying Sudan with deadlier and more advanced weapons, including attack helicopters.
Council diplomats said that while Chinese diplomats in New York recognize the futility of their response, they have been hemmed in by hard-liners in Beijing, particularly within the People’s Liberation Army, which oversees China’s arms exports. Council diplomats also say they remain unsure how much control China’s diplomats have over China’s arms trade.
Last September, the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail reported that it had obtained documents showing that Libyan officials met with Chinese companies to buy arms on July 11, 2011, several months after the council had imposed an arms embargo on Libya.
The Foreign Ministry in China, which had voted in favor of the Libya sanctions, said the contacts had taken place without the government’s knowledge. They said no arms were delivered, and that they would strictly implement the Libya sanctions.
“The PLA has a very powerful voice at the table, and on some of the arms issues what we hear is, this might look like benign munitions in country X but this is going to set people off in our capital,” according to a Security Council diplomat who has worked closely with the Chinese. “The Chinese get extremely sensitive.”
In practice, China has shown the “minimum amount of effort” in enforcing arms embargoes it supports at the Security Council, the official added. “Get them off the record and they say, ‘Look, we have been subjected to sanctions ourselves.’ ”
The United States has sought to assuage Chinese sensitivities by granting Beijing and other key powers greater political control over U.N. investigators enforcing sanctions. In 2009, for instance, the Obama administration proposed inviting the Chinese, along with the council’s other permanent members, plus South Korea and Japan, to appoint their own national experts to enforce sanctions against North Korea.
Beijing’s diplomats have worked assiduously to limit the experts’ ability to do their jobs, pressing for budget cuts that would curb their ability to travel to carry out investigations and attend specialist conferences. China has refused numerous requests by the North Korea panel to visit Beijing to discuss its own efforts to enforce sanctions, and it blocked the publication of the panel’s annual report in 2011.
“It has had a bit of a chilling effect,” said a council diplomat. “It has made the panels a little gun-shy because their reports might not see the light of day if they are too blunt.”
U.S. and European diplomats said that despite Chinese reticence, they have been able to leverage U.N. sanctions, particularly in places like Iran and North Korea, to reinforce U.S. and European sanctions, and to apply pressure on countries that do business with them. “The fact that the panels exist has given a jolt to [Western efforts] to enforce these sanctions and that is a positive thing,” said the council diplomat.
Western diplomats say that they have also succeeded in gradually convincing China to expose itself to greater scrutiny. This year, China allowed the release of the North Korea panel’s 2012 report, which documented the role of China’s Dalian port as a trans-shipment point for luxury goods entering North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions.
They also noted the mysterious appearance of a new KN-08 portable missile launcher on the back of a truck during parade celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. However, they said, the suspected supplier of the missile launcher — China — was excised from the final report.