China is arming world's worst regimes to fuel economic boom, says Amnesty

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China's secret arms exports to some of the world's worst trouble spots are fuelling human rights violations and helping to sustain conflicts in countries such as Sudan, Nepal and Burma, Amnesty International says.

As well as big conventional weapons such as tanks warplanes, ballistic missiles, frigates and submarines, China sells small arms and security equipment to armies and police forces. Arms exports are estimated to be worth nearly £550m a year and often involve the exchange of weapons for raw materials, such as Sudanese oil, to fuel China's rapid economic growth.

"China's arms exports policy is reckless and dangerous, paying no heed to human rights," said Amnesty International's UK director, Kate Allen.

China is the only big arms exporting power that has not entered into any multilateral agreement setting out criteria, including respect for human rights, to guide arms export licensing decisions, Amnesty said in the report,China: Sustaining conflict and human rights abuses.

"In a bid to continue economic expansion and grab a slice of the lucrative global weapons market, China has shipped arms into conflict zones and to countries that torture and repress their people," Ms Allen said.

Since it entered the global arms market 20 years ago, China has supplied an arsenal of military, security and police equipment to countries with a record of human rights violations. It is increasing its reach and influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

China insists its arms exports are lawful, despite growing international criticism, and says it has normal military trade with countries which abide by China's policies and agreements. China's resurgence is a "peaceful rise", says Beijing, citing Washington's nuclear co-operation with India, its role in arming Taiwan, and the strengthening of US-Japanese ties, as evidence of American double-standards.

Amnesty slammed Beijing's continuing supply of military equipment to Sudan despite well-documented and widespread killings, rapes and abductions by government forces and its militia in Darfur.

In Nepal, China has supplied small arms and light weapons to the armed forces, which have been responsible for much of the killings and torture, often of civilians. Guns seized from criminals in South Africa have also often been of Chinese origin. The report also points to possible involvement of Western firms in making some of the weapons.

China's Assistant Foreign Minister, He Yafei, defended his country's role in Sudan last week before a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to Egypt, Ghana, Congo, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda beginning on Friday. "China's co-operation with Sudan, like its co-operation with other African countries, is normal and mutually beneficial. It delivers tenable benefits to the Sudanese people and facilitates Sudan's economic growth and its improvement of its human rights record," he said.

Much attention has been focused in recent months on China's role in selling arms and technology usable in nuclear weapons to Iran, a long-time ally and trading partner.

China has been linked to sales of high-quality uranium gas to Tehran for an enrichment programme which could eventually produce nuclear weapons.

Amnesty said it is not just major weapons of mass destruction that are the problem and it is the weaponry on a smaller scale that is contributing to a worsening human rights situation.