HONG KONG – The news that officials of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime held secret talks in Beijing to buy weapons in July — five months after the Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Libya — is deeply embarrassing for China and casts doubt on its sincerity regarding honoring United Nations sanctions resolutions for which it voted.
These talks may never have come to light were it not for incriminating documents discarded by members of the former Gadhafi regime and subsequently found in the trash.
They show that Gadhafi officials visited Beijing in July and met with representatives of three major state-owned armaments corporations — the China North Industries Corp., China National Precision Machinery Import and Export Co., and China Xinxing Import and Export Co.
The $200 million in weapons that the Libyans were interested in buying included anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air rockets, at a time when NATO forces were carrying out bombing attacks against Gadhafi-held areas of the country.
Beijing had been critical of NATO military actions in support of the rebels and their National Transitional Council, which in July was recognized by the United States as the legitimate government of Libya. By then, China was the lone Security Council holdout as even Russia had called on Gadhafi to step down.
When confronted with evidence of ostensible violation of U.N. sanctions, the Chinese Foreign Ministry acknowledged that discussions did take place but denied that any contracts were signed or weapons exported. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson insisted that the negotiations had occurred “without the knowledge of the Chinese government.”
But it is difficult to imagine how an official Libyan delegation could arrive in Beijing, with visas issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, without the knowledge of the Chinese government.
Moreover, these are state-owned enterprises, not private businesses. It is inconceivable that these enterprises can carry out such activities without the knowledge of the government. After all, by definition they are part of the government.
The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman insisted that “the Chinese Government always implements the U.N. Security Council resolutions in real earnest.”
She explained that after the Security Council resolution was adopted in February, “we informed relevant government departments that they should follow the resolution exactly, and through them, unequivocally required all military trade companies to stay away from resolution-violating export activities.”
How, then, did it happen that not one but three of the country’s leading arms exporting companies should hold talks with Gadhafi representatives on selling them weapons? This was evidently not the case of one loose cannon acting without the knowledge of his superiors. It was three major state-owned companies acting in unison to violate U.N. sanctions.
In fact, the Gadhafi representatives clearly felt that they were dealing with the Chinese government. “The People’s Republic of China is a good friend of ours, and we previously imported several kinds of weapons, ammunition and equipment from them,” one recovered Libyan government memo said.
Possibly to disguise the government’s role, the Chinese companies suggested that the Gadhafi regime reach agreements with sympathetic countries, such as Algeria or South Africa, which can act as conduits for Chinese weapons.
Now that the Gadhafi regime is history, China is taking a pragmatic approach. Last week, it belatedly recognized the National Transitional Council.
Beijing has billions of dollars invested in Libya and the country is a major source of crude oil for China.
The new Libyan authorities are clearly taking Chinese denials of arms dealings with Gadhafi with a grain of salt, but they also recognize the need for pragmatism.
As a council spokesman said: “We all need to remember that China is a superpower. If it is in the interests of the Libyan people to deal with China, then we will deal with China.”
That, no doubt, reflects the attitude of other countries as well. But China’s image has taken a bad hit. Many may feel that even Beijing’s solemn word, given in the U.N., cannot be trusted.
China’s credibility on sanctions enforcement was already poor before the latest Libyan disclosures. Months ago, Beijing fought not to be named in a U.N. report on its failure to intercept suspected shipments of North Korean ballistic-missile items and so was identified only as “a neighboring third country.”
But such arms twisting can only go so far. Already, Washington has called on China to clarify “what did and didn’t transpire” at the meetings with Gadhafi representatives.
Until China cleans up its act, it will not be accorded the respect that it desires, despite its fast-growing economy and its increasing military reach.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. Frank.email@example.com Twitter: @FrankChing1