UNITED NATIONS — China's arms exports have surged over the past decade, flooding sub-Saharan Africa with a new source of cheap assault rifles and ammunition and exposing Beijing to international scrutiny as its lethal wares wind up in conflict zones in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Weapons from China have surfaced in a string of U.N. investigations in war zones stretching from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Ivory Coast, Somalia and Sudan. China is by no means alone in supplying the arms that help fuel African conflicts, and there is no proof that China or its arms exporters have intentionally violated U.N. embargoes in any of those countries.
But China has stood apart from other major arms exporters, including Russia, for its assertive challenge to U.N. authority, routinely refusing to cooperate with U.N. arms experts and flexing its diplomatic muscle to protect its allies and curtail investigations that may shed light on its own secretive arms industry.
The stance highlights the tensions between China's responsibilities as a global power and its interests in exploiting new markets.
It has also raised questions about whether Chinese diplomats have a grip on the reach of the country's influence in the arms industry beyond its borders.
Beijing has responded to the disclosures not by enforcing regulations at home, but by using its clout within the Security Council to claw back the powers of independent U.N. arms investigators. Those efforts have helped undercut the independence of U.N. panels that track arms trading with Iran and North Korea.
"This is really a case of unbridled capitalism, and I think the Chinese government is not even always aware of what these companies are doing," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has been tracking Iran's and North Korea's procurement of nuclear technology from Chinese companies.
When the Chinese are "confronted with evidence," Albright said, "they respond very defensively and legalistically."
China has blocked the release of embarrassing U.N. revelations of illicit arms transfers, stopped the reappointment of an arms expert who uncovered Chinese weapons and sought to restrict the budget to fund investigations.
It has also consistently refused to allow U.N. investigators to trace the origin of Chinese weapons discovered in war zones.
The country's mission to the United Nations did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this report, but its representatives have repeatedly denied accusations that the country is violating sanctions.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China now accounts for 25 percent of the market in sub-Saharan Africa, not including South Africa.
The institute notes that a number of large Ukrainian and Russian arms sales to Sudan and Uganda are likely to force China out of the top ranking in 2012.