Beijing's admission last week that Chinese defense companies met with representatives of Moammar Gadhafi as recently as July to discuss a possible arms deal has raised questions about the kind of military support China supplied Libya's former ruler.
China denies that any contracts were signed at the July meeting in Beijing and says no weapons were exported to Libya as a result of the meeting. It also says it was unaware at the time that the meeting had taken place.
If Chinese companies did export weapons, it would be a violation of United Nations sanctions put in place earlier this year.
Analyst Richard Fisher at the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center says he was surprised that Beijing admitted the meeting took place and that Chinese defense companies had even considered getting involved in the Libyan civil war. “We rarely, if ever, get even a partial admission of guilt from a Chinese government spokesman. Their first rule is to deny everything and the government spokesman again, after about 24 hours of delay, initially denying, coming out and admitting that there was at least contact with Libyan government officials," he said.
Fisher says China’s admission appears to be an attempt to appeal to both sides in the Libyan conflict. “An outright denial would have simply inflamed their deteriorating position in Libya. So they decided not to deny. But in admitting a mistake partially, they have also opened the door to many other questions," he said.
China only recently recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council, or NTC, and the allegations about a possible arms deal to help pro-Gadhafi forces have complicated its position in the country, where it has oil and infrastructure contracts.
China’s presence in Libya was so massive that when the Libyan conflict began, Beijing dispatched a naval frigate to help some 30,000 Chinese evacuate from Libya.
Details of the July meeting surfaced recently when a reporter for the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, found documents in a Tripoli neighborhood that talked about how Chinese defense companies had tried to sell weapons and munitions to Moammar Gadhafi's forces. The documents did not say whether the materiel was delivered.
Officials with the NTC say they were aware of China’s involvement, even before the documents surfaced and plan to take legal action.
In an interview with the Reuters news agency last week, Libya's military spokesman, Abdulrahman Busin, said the NTC has hard evidence that Moammar Gadhafi bought arms from China and countries in Eastern Europe in defiance of U.N. sanctions. "A lot of it was done through a middleman. This subject has not just come up just now. We have been pursuing it for some time now. And the documents that have come up have only hardened our case that we have been building over the last few months," he said.
Busin said that according to the documents, the "middleman" was Algeria, a country with which China has close military ties. He also said there is clear evidence that China knew the final destination for the arms was Libya.
Prior to the imposition of U.N. sanctions earlier this year, and before Libya's civil war began, Libya’s defense ministry was being courted by many countries that wanted to supply it with weapons. More than 100 companies from at least 24 countries participated in the Libyan Defense Expo late last year. More than half of those companies were British.
Chinese defense companies were among those present, including those named in the documents that were found earlier this month, according to military analysts.
Pieter Wezeman is a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute who specializes in arms transfers to the Middle East and North Africa. “It's quite sure that China would try to sell all types of equipment, anything from small arms to armored vehicles to combat aircraft as they would elsewhere too, and as other countries have tried to do. However, very little is known about what China actually delivered," he said.
Wezeman adds that as more information surfaces, it should become clearer what role China might have played in arming Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. "From what I have seen, from the images I have seen, there have been many other types of weapons from, again, a whole range of countries. I’ve seen Belgian rifles; I’ve seen Russian rifles. We know that there have been considerable numbers of Ukrainian rifles, just to mention a few examples," he said.
Analyst Richard Fisher says Chinese weapons played a role in the conflict. “A casual review of imagery of the fighting since the civil war began indicates quite clearly that both sides in the conflict were using Chinese weapons. Both sides were firing Chinese rocket propelled grenades at each other. Both sides were using Chinese made pickup trucks to carry large machine guns or mortars for use against each other," he said.
U.S. officials say they have not seen anything that contradicts China’s position that no arms were sold. Speaking in Washington at a meeting sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said this week that China has told the United States that it plans to "strengthen internal controls" to ensure that meetings such as those in July do not occur again.