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.