Commentary Magazine


China’s Arms Exports Aren’t Mistakes

Colum Lynch had an interesting feature on China’s arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa in the Washington Post this weekend. His premise was that, while China does all it can to prevent this trade from becoming public knowledge, it is conducted without the approval of China’s diplomats. This may in some cases be true: the Chinese Foreign Ministry may not know about China’s exports of incendiary cartridges. But that just sums up the problem, which is that China is not a nation governed by law. Expecting it to have regular, lawful processes is quite beside the point.

Lynch quotes one expert as arguing that China’s arms trade is “a case of unbridled capitalism.” This is ridiculous: the Chinese exporters may be making profits, but they are state-owned. They are doing what they are supposed to do, which is to win raw materials contracts and political influence for China by selling arms to governments under UN sanctions at prices few others can match. Chinese diplomats may find this embarrassing, but they do what they are told to do, which is to defend the sales and obstruct investigations. Westerners appear to be congenitally incapable of realizing that most autocracies, unlike Western democracies, have a public and a private face: the public face is on display at the UN, while the private one makes the decisions that actually matter.

What is depressing is how many accomplices the Chinese public face finds in the West. As witnessed by their behavior during July’s Arms Trade Treaty negotiations at the UN, Western NGOs are relentlessly credulous about China’s behavior and relentlessly skeptical about U.S. motives. The U.S. government itself is even worse, and that matters more. Lynch reports that:

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…

Nothing good can come of this. As long as it’s an autocracy, China is not going to be wheedled into seeing things our way by being included on UN committees or in UN treaties. Rather like Russia’s efforts to facilitate Syrian oil sales and circumvent UN sanctions, China is going to keep on making these so-called mistakes. Except they’re not mistakes. They’re policy.