China should take a lead role in arms trade treaty

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 January, 2011, 12:00am

It is commonly held in the West that China is undermining democracy and human rights in the developing world by selling weapons to dictatorial regimes, particularly in Africa. Deals have certainly been made with governments with poor track records, but it would be wrong to claim that Beijing is the worst offender. There are bigger arms producers and exporters, not least its accusers.

But nothing is to be gained by pointing accusatory fingers or making good-guy, bad-guy assertions. Instead, we should be encouraging greater restraint and better understanding of global responsibilities. A good start would be for China to take a lead in efforts at the United Nations for the creation of a treaty regulating the international arms trade. It has given guarded backing to the proposal, expressing support while sticking firmly to its line that any agreement has to respect national sovereignty and be grounded in consensus. The global arms industry is valued at trillions of dollars and the nation has a slice estimated at 8 per cent - an economic advantage that the government does not want decimated by the pact. At the same time, though, the reasons why such a deal is necessary have to be kept firmly in mind.

The proposed pact - the Arms Trade Treaty - would fill significant gaps in existing weapons agreements. It would be the first legally-binding international deal of its kind, being aimed at preventing the transfer of weapons to armed groups fuelling conflicts, human rights violators and terrorists. Unchecked proliferation is causing growing humanitarian crises in conflict zones in the developing world, especially Africa and Latin America.

The consequences have been devastating. At least 250,000 people have been killed each year as a result of the 128 armed conflicts that have broken out since 1989. Thoughtless and corrupt weapons deals have prevented billions of dollars from being invested in humanitarian projects. The suffering is worst in Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo - countries where Chinese weapons have either been exported or made their way.

That naturally fuels accusations that China's quest for minerals and business opportunities in Africa lacks morals. There has been particular outrage over arms sales to Sudan's government, under fire for alleged war crimes in the Darfur region. But China is not the only weapons exporter - Russia supplies five times as much. And while another autocratic African state, Egypt, is also a large buyer of Chinese weapons, those sales are dwarfed by those from the United States.

While China sold weapons to or was in some way involved in military missions in seven of Africa's 53 countries in 2005, the US had deals with 47. That should not be surprising as the US is by far the world's biggest arms seller, with 30 per cent of the global market in 2009. China was ranked seventh, with Spain, Britain, France, Germany and Russia also ahead. Beijing's placing is expected to rise sharply in coming years, given its greater influence and as it develops more sophisticated weapons systems. This may well fuel unease in some quarters. Concern over the South and East China seas over the past year has quickened the pace of military build-ups by neighbours. There should be more efforts put into reassuring the international community. China's taking of a dominant role in the formulation and putting in place of a global arms trade treaty to which all nations would be obligated to abide would be a sound place to begin.