China’s African mischief

China’s has proven its willingness to arm Africa’s dictators – even when it votes against such actions at the UN.

When faced with civil war, Gaddafi turned to China for weapons [GALLO/GETTY]

As Libya’s National Transitional Council attempts to establish a functioning government for a newly liberated country, the truth about what went on under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is starting to come to light. Various treasures have been unearthed from Tripoli mansions that were hastily vacated by their owners, and what happened to the tortured, the murdered, and the missing is beginning to be revealed.

So, too, are some of Gaddafi’s dirtiest diplomatic secrets being exposed. On September 2, the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported on recent negotiations between the embattled Gaddafi regime and Chinese armaments companies – with direct ties to China’s government – for contracts worth $200 million.

Such contracts were in flagrant violation of the arms embargo instituted under UN Security Council Resolution 1970, which China approved. China’s rulers have denied that the secret arms deals were valid, and insist that the government did not authorise them. But a travel report explicitly states that Gaddafi’s security officials met with three Chinese arms manufacturers: China North Industries Corp. (Norinco), the China National Precision Machinery Import & Export Corp. (CPMIC), and China XinXing Import & Export Corp. The agenda included not only these companies’ available weapons stockpiles, but also the Chinese firms’ promise to provide additional weapons if required.

China’s rulers have denied that the secret arms deals were valid and insist the government did not authorise them.

Gaddafi’s turn to China in his hour of desperation is somewhat surprising. After all, he reacted to China’s growing activities in Africa – which his officials maintained was “reminiscent of imperialism” – by receiving an official visit in 2006 from Taiwan’s then-President Chen Shui-bian. As the pressure from the rebels grew, Gaddafi’s last hope for maintaining power became China, and so fear of its influence in Africa was brushed aside.

For decades, Gaddafi had behaved as if he were, as his propagandists proclaimed him, “King among African Kings”, using his country’s abundant oil revenues to provide aid to his neighbours. He announced investments of $97 billion to “free Africa from the West”. President Compaoré of Burkina Faso (initially rumoured to be a likely destination for Gaddafi’s exile) received military training from Libya in the 1980s before rising to power in a coup d’état.

President Idriss Déby of Chad also brought about political change in 1990 with Gaddafi’s backing. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, who is now harbouring Gaddafi’s third son, Saadi, was able to win his country’s presidential election in March thanks to financial support from Gaddafi.

China courts Africa

But, in recent years, China became an obstacle to Gaddafi’s African ambitions, and China did so by copying his methods: Buying the support of dictators with weaponry and finance. Since 2000, China has actively courted Africa’s unstable and dictatorial countries with offers of aid and a refusal to back United Nations sanctions against them. Indeed, China has blithely entered into business with African countries that Europe and America refuse to engage with, owing to sanctions.

International sanctions, it now seems, were the door through which China rushed to gain access to Africa’s mineral wealth for its voracious industries. For example, instead of making an effort to foster peace in Sudan, as a permanent, veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council should, China’s deep involvement with Sudan, through the provision of oil infrastructure and weapons, actually prolonged the Darfur conflict.

Film director Steven Spielberg embarrassed China … calling the Chinese games the ‘genocide Olympics.’

A letter to Chinese officials, signed by many members of the US Congress, and a report by Amnesty International state that China exported weapons to Sudan in violation of UN resolutions. The Oscar-winning film director Steven Spielberg embarrassed China by resigning from an advisory post for the 2008 Beijing Olympics because of its support for the government in Khartoum, calling the Chinese games the “genocide Olympics”.

As Gaddafi fought his opponents this summer, ten states in southern Sudan broke away, claiming independence as the 54th country on the African continent. Roughly 80 per cent of Sudan’s oil production of 490,000 barrels per day is concentrated in South Sudan. In 2010, China imported almost half of this output, roughly 250,000 barrels per day, which accounts for about five per cent of China’s oil imports. Given its support for the brutal national government in Khartoum, China is now desperately trying to repair relations with South Sudan, so that it can continue to exploit the new country’s oil reserves.

More from Yuriko Koike:

– The last days of        Gaddafi

– Unsafe at any  speed?

– Asia after the Afghan war

Like Sudan, Angola, Africa’s second largest oil producer, has experienced continued conflict for decades. It was subject to UN sanctions until 2002. Yet, during the years of Angola’s pariah status, China provided large-scale infrastructure finance in return for oil. Today, China is the second biggest destination for Angolan oil (the US, which jumped on the bandwagon after sanctions were lifted, is the largest). Indeed, Angola produces more oil for China than Saudi Arabia does, and, at times, as many as 100,000 Chinese workers have been working on Angolan infrastructure projects.

China has chosen a high-risk path – ignoring human rights and violating UN sanctions – to secure the energy and other resources needed to sustain its economy’s rapid growth. It is a choice that neither befits one of the permanent members of the Security Council, nor demonstrates China’s readiness to be a responsible stakeholder in the international community.

China’s willingness to arm and defend African dictators, even in the teeth of UN sanctions, as in Libya, undermines its claim to a “peaceful rise”. Given China’s Libyan duplicity, the world should now determine whether it is a country that obeys international rules only when doing so suits its interests.

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser, is Chairman of the Executive Council of the Liberal Democratic Party.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

A version of this article was first published on Project Syndicate.