China's Secret Arms Dealings

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This column was written by John J. Tkacik, Jr..

This year, many truckloads of small arms and explosives direct from Chinese government-owned factories to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been transshipped to Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are used against American soldiers and Marines and NATO forces. Since April, according to a knowledgeable Bush administration official, "vast amounts" of Chinese-made large caliber sniper rifles, "millions of rounds" of ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and "IED [improvised explosive device] components" have been convoyed from Iran into Iraq and to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insists there is "no evidence as yet" that Tehran government officials are involved in shipping weapons to Iraq for use against U.S. forces, a judgment that seems to hinge on the view that the Revolutionary Guards are not part of the "government." But the administration source cautioned, "these are Revolutionary Guards trucks, and although we can't see the mullahs at the wheel, you can bet this is [Tehran] government-sanctioned."

In addition, in early June the Washington Times reported from Kabul that the Pentagon had evidence of new shipments of Chinese shoulder-fired HN-5 antiaircraft missiles reaching Taliban units in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. This shouldn't be surprising. The Pentagon has known since last August that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had supplied Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missiles with advanced anti-jamming countermeasures to Hezbollah in Lebanon. One slammed into the Israeli destroyer Hanit, killing four sailors on July 14, 2006, during the Lebanon war.

The amount of raw intelligence on these Chinese arms shipments to Iran is growing, according to the official, who has seen it. Some items show Iran has made "urgent" requests for "vast amounts" of Chinese-made sniper rifles, apparently exact copies of the Austrian-made Steyr-Mannlicher HS50 which the Vienna government approved for sale to Iran's National Iranian Police Organization in 2004 (ostensibly to help customs officers police Iran's long and sparsely populated mountainous borders). At the time, the United States and Great Britain glowered at the Austrian government and slapped a two-year sales ban on Steyr-Mannlicher. Then in February, as if to confirm the worst suspicions, U.S. troops in Iraq uncovered caches of about 100 of the sniper weapons that looked like the Austrian rifles, the Daily Telegraph reported.

U.S. officials in Baghdad told reporters that at least 170 U.S. and British soldiers had been killed by well-trained and heavily armed snipers. On June 22, for example, an Army specialist was struck by a sniper as he climbed out of his Abrams tank during Operation Bull Run in Al Duraiya. Earlier that morning, the same sniper shot out the tank's thermal sights. He was "probably the most skilled sniper we've seen down here," the soldier's platoon leader told National Public Radio.

But were the Iraqi snipers indeed using Austrian-made armor-piercing .50 caliber weapons?

Perhaps not. There was little official American reaction to the discovery of the sniper rifle cache in February. In March, Steyr-Mannlicher claimed that U.S. authorities had yet to ask it for help in tracing the weapons, a simple matter of checking serial numbers, or even letting Austrian technicians examine the rifles. The Americans never approached the Austrian firearms firm. On March 29, Vienna's Wiener Zeitung quoted U.S. Central Command spokesman Scott Miller as admitting, "No Austrian weapons have been found in Iraq."

Upon hearing this, Steyr-Mannlicher owner Franz Holzschuh noted that the patents on the HS .50 expired "years ago," and they were being counterfeited all over the world. A quick Google search for "sniper rifles" confirms that China South Industries' AMR-2 12.7mm anti-materiel rifle is a good replica of the HS .50.

In fact, Iran's Revolutionary Guards had placed large orders for Chinese sniper rifles, among other things. According to the administration official, U.S. intelligence picked up urgent messages from Iranian customers to Chinese arms factories pleading that the shipments were needed "quickly" and specifying that the "serial numbers are to be removed." The Chinese vendors, according to the intelligence, were only too happy to comply. The Chinese also suggested helpfully that the shipments be made directly from China to Iran by cargo aircraft "to minimize the possibility that the shipments will be interdicted."

According to sources who have seen the intel reports, the evidence of China-Iran arms deliveries is overwhelming. This is not a case of ambiguous intelligence. The intelligence points to Chinese government complicity in the Iranian shipments of Chinese small arms to Iraqi insurgents.

Yet top State Department and National Security Council officials prefer to believe that the relationship between Chinese government-owned and operated arms exporters and Iranian terrorists is "unofficial." Therefore, they ought not make too much out of it, lest the Chinese government be unhelpful with the North Koreans. This is the "China exception" at work; it pervades both the intelligence and national security bureaucracies. Moreover, there is a belief in some circles in the administration and on Capitol Hill that Iran's government can be "negotiated" with and therefore the activities of Tehran's Revolutionary Guards must not be seen as reflecting Iranian government policy.

Of course, it is inconceivable that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards send convoys of newly minted Chinese weapons into Iraq and Afghanistan without the clear intention of killing U.S. troops there. And it is equally inconceivable that the Chinese People's Liberation Army facilitates these shipments from its own factories and via its own air bases without the same outcome in mind. If, however, the shipments are occurring against the wishes of Beijing — if the Chinese central government cannot control the behavior of its own army — then the situation is dire indeed: How can anyone expect Beijing to restrain shipments of even more destructive weapons (missiles, submarines, torpedoes, nuclear weapons components) to rogue states? It is a prospect that U.S. officials simply cannot handle.

After leaks of this alarming intelligence surfaced in Bill Gertz's "Inside the Ring" column in the Washington Times, top Pentagon officials began to acknowledge the troubling truth behind them. On July 22, Agence France-Presse quoted the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Rear Admiral Mark I. Fox, as acknowledging: "There are missiles that are actually manufactured in China that we assess come through Iran" in order to arm groups fighting U.S.-led forces.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless told the Financial Times on July 7 that the United States has "become increasingly alarmed that Chinese armor-piercing ammunition has been used by the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq." The FT quoted one unnamed U.S. official as saying that the United States would like China to "do a better job of policing these sales," as if China actually wanted to "police" its arms exports.

Lawless, revered in the Pentagon as a steely-eyed China skeptic, evinced less agnosticism to the FT, explaining that the country of origin was less important than who was facilitating the transfer. One might wonder why Beijing, as a matter of policy, would sell weapons to Iran for the clear purpose of killing American soldiers. "There is a great shortfall in our understanding of China's intentions," said Lawless of China's overall military policies, and "when you don't know why they are doing it, it is pretty damn threatening .... They leave us no choice but to assume the worst."

Why China is "doing it" need not be a mystery. In 2004, Beijing's top America analyst, Wang Jisi, noted, "The facts have proven that it is beneficial for our international environment to have the United States militarily and diplomatically deeply sunk in the Mideast to the extent that it can hardly extricate itself." It is sobering to consider that China's small-arms proliferation behavior since then suggests that this principle is indeed guiding Chinese foreign policy.

Beijing's strategists learned much from their collaboration with Washington during the 1980s, when the two powers prosecuted a successful decade-long campaign to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. The trick is to avoid a head-to-head confrontation with your adversary while getting insurgents to keep him tied down and taking advantage of his distraction to pursue your interests elsewhere. The cynical difference is that in the Afghan war of the 1980s, the U.S.-supported mujahedeen killed tens of thousands of Soviet troops, while in the early 21st century, Iranian (and Chinese)-supported insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq are mostly killing Afghans and Iraqis.

The "China exception" notwithstanding, the ease with which Chinese state-owned munitions industries export vast quantities of small arms to violence-prone and war-ravaged areas — from Iraq and Afghanistan to Darfur — leaves no room to doubt that the Chinese government pursues this behavior as a matter of state policy. A regime with $1.3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves cannot claim that it "needs the money" and so turns a blind eye to dangerous exports by its own military. But until the scales fall from the eyes of Washington's diplomats and geopoliticians and they see China's cynical global strategy for what it is, few of the globe's current crises are likely to be resolved in America's — or democracy's — favor. In particular, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi and Afghan civilians will continue to be killed by Chinese weapons.

By John J. Tkacik, Jr
  • Kristin Dross

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