Last October, when China issued an unprecedented white paper on relations with the European Union (EU), it painted a rosy picture of economic exchanges, predicting that the EU would outstrip the United States and Japan and become China’s largest trading and investment partner. Not so coincidentally, it also called on the Europeans to lift their arms embargo on China, imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, saying that such a move would remove barriers to bilateral cooperation in defense industries and technologies.
Warmly welcomed by the Europeans, the paper came weeks before a scheduled China-EU summit. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, called it “a significant contribution towards further deepening dialogue and cooperation” and promised to undertake “a thorough examination of the Chinese proposals.”
France and Germany are most supportive of China’s position. While visiting Beijing in December 2003, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told Premier Wen Jiabao that “the time has come” to lift the embargo. That same month, during a summit of EU member states, French President Jacques Chirac led European leaders in referring the issue to their respective foreign ministers, urging them “to re-examine the question of the embargo on the sale of arms to China.”
This is the first time the policy has been reviewed since the European Council declared an “interruption by the member states of the community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China” in the wake of the Chinese military crackdown on pro-democracy students in June 1989.
At their first meeting of the year in Brussels in January 2004, EU foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement after discussing the issue. They asked two working groups, the Committee of Permanent Representatives and the Political and Security Committee, to examine the matter further. The day after the ministerial meeting, President Chirac, at a joint conference with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao, publicly called for the lifting of the arms embargo on China. In response, the U.S. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated Washington’s position: “We believe that the U.S. and European prohibitions on arms sales are complementary, were imposed for the same reasons, specifically serious human-rights abuses, and that those reasons remain valid today.”
It now appears that the vast majority of EU members favor lifting the arms embargo, arguing that China does not belong in the same category as Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe – the three other countries against whom there is an EU arms embargo. Even the Netherlands, which had been reluctant to act, indicated in late January that it was willing to go along if the majority of EU members are in favor of ending the embargo.
But China remains a debated issue in some EU countries. Just last weekend, the Danish parliament’s foreign policy committee demanded that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen appear before the committee to explain his comments in Beijing last month when he said that Denmark “will not oppose the lifting of the weapons embargo.” Contention over the move could be seen at a meeting of the foreign policy committee earlier in February, during which Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller indicated Denmark would support lifting the embargo only if the Chinese government demonstrated willingness to improve human rights in the country and back off its hard line stance on Taiwan. Moller emphasized that even if the embargo were lifted, the EU would continue to control weapon sales to China.
Left with little choice but to buy Russian weaponry, Beijing has been anxious for the EU to lift its embargo. And while the acquisition of French Mirage fighter jets and missiles from German would benefit the regime, clearly China believes that if the EU ends the embargo, pressure will build within the US for Washington to do the same – giving China access to American weapons and improving its bargaining position vis-à-vis all weapons suppliers.
A unanimous vote of the EU Council of Ministers is required before the embargo can be lifted. The accession of ten new members on May 1, many of which are close to the U.S., makes such agreement even more difficult: ergo the frantic effort by France and its allies to have this done before May. With the mood inside the EU noticeably shifting towards lifting the embargo, France has argued that the ban is “anachronistic” given the economic changes China has undergone since Tiananmen Square. In February, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, Javier Solana, was quoted by the official China Daily newspaper as saying that discussions to lift the embargo “are on the right track” and that he did not think “lifting the arms embargo is a big problem” though there is no proposed date for this to happen. Opposition within the EU to ending the embargo immediately grows out of concerns over exacerbating tensions in the Taiwan Strait in the run-up to the Taiwan presidential election on March 20. This leaves those wishing to lift the embargo with a relatively narrow window in which to take action, roughly between late March and late April.
However, the European Parliament did express its opposition to lifting the embargo in a resolution last December. The resolution, approved with 373 votes in favor and 32 against, urged EU member states to keep the embargo and not ease restrictions on the sale of arms to China, noting that the nation’s human rights record “remains unsatisfactory,” and that “violations of fundamental human rights continue as does torture, abuse and arbitrary detentions.”
Add to this the powerful US lobby against lifting the ban. Washington argues that doing so could upset the fragile strategic balance in East Asia, where tension between Taiwan and mainland China remains high. With a recent human-rights report condemning Beijing’s record, the US says that now is not the time to lift the embargo, claiming the human-rights situation in China had deteriorated rather than improved.
But even if the EU does lift the arms embargo, an EU “code of conduct” on arms sales will still govern trade in weapons with China. The 1998 code bars the sale of equipment that could be used in regional conflicts or domestic repression, which would still be enforceable on sales to China.
This means that even in the increasingly likely event that the EU does lift the embargo, sales of certain weapons will still be illegal. Long-range missile technology, for instance, is unlikely to be made available even after the embargo is lifted given that China has almost 500 missiles along the coast aimed at Taiwan.
The relationship between China and the EU is being driven inexorably by geopolitical forces, even more than economic ones. Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union left the US as the world’s only superpower, China has been casting around for partners to check the excesses of American power. The months leading up to the invasion of Iraq saw European and Chinese interests dovetail in opposing what both viewed as unilateral action by the U.S. Moreover, the Chinese economy and that of the EU are, to a large extent, complementary, with Europe having a strong industrialized base, capital and technology. China, for its part, offers a huge market and low-cost labor.
Of course, the Chinese are not about to turn their back on the US. In fact, Beijing considers the relationship with Washington to be more important than any other, not least because access to the American market is vital for China’s economic growth. But the Chinese, like the Europeans, want to bring about a multipolar world – with China and Europe as two of the poles.