Tensions are growing between China and Libya's new government after revelations that Chinese weapons manufacturers met recently with a delegation sent by Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, despite a UN resolution banning military assistance to his regime.
In an unusually frank response, China's Foreign Ministry confirmed reporting by The Globe and Mail that Col. Gadhafi's envoys travelled to Beijing in mid-July and held meetings with state-controlled arms makers. But the ministry insisted that those talks did not result in any signed deals or weapons deliveries. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman even suggested that Col. Gadhafi's men had operated clandestinely inside China, somehow arranging to meet representatives from three Chinese weapons manufacturers without official permission.
Nothing about the four-page memo, printed on Libyan government letterhead and discovered by The Globe and Mail in Tripoli, suggested that the delegation slipped into China without the government's knowledge. According to the documents, published by The Globe on Saturday, Col. Gadhafi's envoys arrived in Beijing on a regular Lufthansa flight that landed July 16; they were met by a Libyan military liaison officer – a senior general – who made reservations for the group at a Beijing hotel. Although the documents emphasize that the Chinese firms asked for confidentiality, there was no suggestion of keeping secrets from the Chinese government.
"The People's Republic of China is a good friend of ours, and we previously imported several kinds of weapons, ammunition and equipment from them (as mentioned by the deputies of two companies during our meeting with them)," the memo says.
The documents suggest that at least $200-million in conventional arms and ammunition were under discussion, but it's unclear whether the deal was consummated.
The Chinese response did not appear to impress transitional leaders in Tripoli, who circulated documents found by The Globe to other news organizations and gave a series of interviews calling for accountability for what they called a breach of a United Nations arms embargo.
"It's a Chinese state-controlled company, and they are saying they didn't know about it?" said Mohammed Sayeh, a member of the National Transitional Council. "This is amazing, really."
UN Security Council resolution 1970 declared a halt to all military assistance for Col. Gadhafi's regime in February. At the time, China endorsed the measure as a way to stop the killing of civilians. On Monday, China maintained that it fully respected the embargo.
"After resolution 1970 was passed, the Chinese government implemented it seriously, and had asked all arms company not to get involved in any sales that go against the resolution," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "I believe the relevant companies and departments will deal with it seriously."
During months of bitter war against Col. Gadhafi's loyalists, the rebels grew increasingly suspicious that their opponents were circumventing the arms embargo and obtaining fresh supplies. Now that those fighters have seized control of government buildings in Tripoli, hastily evacuated by Col. Gadhafi, they seem likely to find any evidence of such transactions in the coming weeks.
A rebel spokesman hinted that more evidence of arms shipments exists, and could form the basis of legal action against China and other countries that violated the sanctions.
Some members of the transitional leadership have expressed misgivings about starting diplomatic spats so early in the process of setting up a new government, suggesting they will continue doing business with Chinese companies in future, no matter how unsavoury Beijing's ties with the former regime. Others appear less certain, suggesting that China's reluctance to endorse the NATO intervention, and the fresh revelations of secret dealings with the Gadhafi regime, could sour relations between the two countries.
"If indeed the Chinese government agreed to sell arms to Gadhafi only a month ago, definitely it will affect our relationship with China," Ali Tarhouni, the interim finance minister, told al-Jazeera television.