China’s dubious arms deals in Libya will hurt more than its reputation
China, hungry for energy, mineral and agricultural resources, is investing a lot in the African continent. It is the first trading partner of South Africa, is signing $bn deals with Mozambique and Nigeria, is dispatching countless traders to snap minerals by the bulk, and funds construction companies to build the many roads and bridges African nations can’t afford. The West can’t keep up, and the other Brics are outpaced.
Yet if there is a country where China is not best placed to make swift progress - and where it has reasons to worry - it is Libya. Last week documents found by a journalist in Tripoli established visits by Libyan officials to China this summer, purportedly to broker arms deals to Gaddafi’s then-ailing forces. Beijing admitted the fact this Monday, but said it was not aware of the visits at the time. No deal was signed and no arms sent, the Foreign Ministry assured.
The story is proving a huge embarrassment to Beijing nevertheless. China was already struggling to improve its relations with the victorious rebels, at a time when major economic powers are jockeying to win contracts with the newly appointed government. The tepid disclaimer it just issued is unlikely to repair the damage: it simply isn’t credible that Gaddafi’s emissaries could have smuggled in China unnoticed, when all the companies they visited are state-owned. Worse, other evidence seems to suggest that weapons have been supplied indirectly though Algeria.
This will support the views that China’s strides across the continent are not only tainted with cynicism, but also, sometimes, illegal (if proven true these arms deals would be in blatant breach of the UN resolution). It will support the view that Beijing is ready to do anything to win business, including propping up regimes deemed unsavoury by everyone else, such as Mugabe in Zimbabwe or al-Bashir in Sudan. And along with it trample on human rights and environmental considerations altogether. This won’t do any good to its image on the continent, and may hurt its economic interests just as much.
That’s a shame. Because China and its business driven, multiform involvement in Africa could offer the continent an alternative way out of underdevelopment. Where the West and international organizations have largely failed, Chinese investors can boost employment and growth, remove logistical and production bottle necks, and help African nations diversify away from purely resource-based economic models. By showing poor business ethics and geopolitical daftness, China is giving easy ammunitions to those who like to think otherwise.