BAE Systems, the UK's largest defence company, is targeting exports of civil aerospace equipment to trouble spots like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran to gain a prime position to sell arms when government restrictions are lifted.
The Government bans arms exports to war-torn countries such as the Congo and "axis of evil" countries including Iran. But BAE has told The Independent on Sunday that it is selling civil equipment, such as a "navigation beacon", to the Congo to forge relationships for the future.
Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader and foreign policy spokesman of the Liberal Democrats, criticised the practice.
"Companies are entitled to establish good relations with foreign governments, but we want them to do so for purposes which are consistent with other foreign policy objectives, such as peace and stability," he said.
The Congo has been torn apart by wars with its neighbours and internal conflict that has killed more than three million people since 1998. The UN estimates there are 30,000 refugees in the country.
In the past, BAE, chaired by Sir Richard Evans, controversially sold equipment to Zimbabwe for aircraft which were being used in the Congo conflict.
Rolf Rue, BAE's managing director for new strategic markets, said that when the political and economic environment of the countries is right, BAE wants to be in a position to sell defence products to areas such as the Congo and Iran. "We are starting to build links [with such countries]... so when it is time to shop for military equipment, they will naturally turn to BAE," he said. "My task, by the time the political environment is right for trade, is to have a relationship in place that will make the customer think of us as a natural seller."
He said a dialogue with the Congo had led to civil aviation navigation equipment being purchased using Western governments' aid for the country. BAE has been talking to Iran for years over civilian aircraft orders. But Mr Campbell said: "What is legal is not necessarily good for the UK's foreign policy. What is good for BAE's shareholders is not necessarily good for UK Ltd.
"What this demonstrates is a pressing need for much greater co-ordination between foreign policy and the attitude towards arms exports." BAE was contacted for a response but it did not return calls.
BAE was forced last week to defend itself against claims that it had operated a £20m "slush fund" in order to bribe Saudi Arabian officials to oil lucrative arms deals. Mike Turner, the chief executive of BAE, said: "They are old allegations and they are old hat. They are history. Everything we do is legal and that is all I am prepared to say. Whatever the law is, we are legal."