Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 7

The impending termination of the EU’s embargo on arms sales to China has implications beyond EU-U.S. and EU-China relations. The motives of the players in this drama, as well as the repercussions of the embargo’s likely end, are many and diverse. Certainly, they go beyond the strains that will be imposed on EU-U.S. relations and the threats of economic sanctions against the EU that now emanate from Washington.

China seeks to diversify its arms purchases and avoid exclusive reliance upon Russian models for the latest high-tech weaponry – particularly with regard to power projection, command, control, and computers, reconnaissance systems and space related technology. In 2004, the PRC tried to persuade Moscow to sell it top of the line systems and failed. This intensified its pursuit of the EU, with what clearly appears to be considerable success.

Since 1989, Russia has been China’s virtually exclusive supplier of military arms and assistance to the tune of $2 billion annually. China, however, wants to receive the technology and know-how to build these weapons indigenously so as to minimize its exclusive dependence on Russia. Since the Russian defense industry would collapse without the Chinese and Indian markets, it has had little choice but to oblige China’s requests. Thus, China now has the capability to make much of the Russian-type weaponry through technology transfer. To the degree that China can get top of the line weapons and communications/information technology that it needs (and in many cases better quality weapons and servicing) from Europe, the Russian defense industry will take a severe blow. Indeed, Beijing probably hopes to obtain technologies and capabilities that it cannot get from Russia since Moscow has been reluctant to sell top of the line systems to China.

Last year, China already joined the EU’s Galileo project to tap into European developments in space and satellite technology. While there has been no official statement from Russia about the EU’s impending decision, there is clearly considerable unease as to what it may portend for the Russian defense industry – and for Moscow, which clearly displays considerable ambivalence about China’s future goals. This unease feeds into a broader sense that Russia cannot regulate the consequences of China’s growth and might face a creeping “satellization” vis-à-vis Beijing if it loses still more leverage.

Thus, Beijing has the opportunity to not only pit the EU against Washington diplomatically, but also against Moscow with regard to arms sales and technology transfer. China is already attempting to exploit this trend. In late 2004, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov successfully proposed joint Chinese-Russian maneuvers to Beijing. Russia wanted to conduct joint anti-terrorist operations in China’s troubled Xinjiang province, a move that made strategic sense given Xinjiang’s unrest and proximity to Central Asia. However, China has recently insisted that the operation involve large-scale conventional forces in anti-landing operations and take place on China’s coast. That orientation would recast the joint maneuvers as a rehearsal for an invasion of Taiwan, not an anti-terrorist exercise.

Moscow balked at this, not wishing to antagonize Washington over Taiwan, an issue of little consequence to Russia, and the exercises were postponed. As a result, Russian Chief of Staff General Yuri Baluevsky traveled in March to Beijing to achieve a workable resolution of this dispute. Regardless of the outcome, the episode demonstrates that Beijing is now trying to dictate the terms of its bilateral military relationship with Moscow. Should China free itself of dependence upon Russia for military sales, this trend is sure to continue.

The impending termination of the embargo also serves other key objectives of Chinese diplomacy. Driving a wedge between the United States and its allies conforms to the strategic dictates of Chinese diplomacy. Many Chinese writers on world politics postulate the existence of tensions in the European-American relationship that China can or should exploit as it seeks to build a multi-polar world order and diminish America’s power to threaten or pressure China.

The West’s ability to limit Chinese arms purchases since 1989 exemplifies the use of that power, which has become increasingly irksome to an ever more prosperous China. Freed from that restraint, China would be able to pursue such goals as extending and consolidating its superiority over Taiwan, as well as deterring both Japan and the United States from helping Taiwan in the case of any forthcoming crisis. China’s expected military superiority over Taiwan can also be used to intimidate it into surrender as China tried in 1995-96. Also, ending the embargo signifies the end of EU leverage vis-à-vis democratic reforms and human rights in the PRC – another major victory for Chinese diplomacy.

For the EU and its leading members like France, Germany, and Great Britain, the decision to end the embargo also serves multiple goals. The EU generally wants to upgrade its presence in Asia, and project itself as a major world power. In 2001-02 it launched a Korean project which was widely interpreted as an attempt to counter American presence and power on the peninsula. Likewise, in 2004 it signed an agreement with India, allowing key members such as France and Great Britain to become the major sellers of weapons to the subcontinent. India also is a recent member of the Galileo project, from which it too benefits by the transfer of scientific knowledge and technology as regards space and satellites. Thus for both the EU as a whole and for its leading members, Asian arms sales have become a key frontier. There also is some evidence that the EU’s recent inclination to ending the embargo on arms sales to China is partly driven by frustration with American closure of its market to members’ defense industries, and that this is an attempt to leverage the threat of sales to China in order to open up America’s defense market to European producers.

However, it is also clear that individual members like France, Germany, and Great Britain are also pushing strongly to end the embargo. Although their individual motives vary, these countries have a common desire to rescue their ailing defense industries (which are finding it ever harder to compete in what is today an arms buyers’ market) by opening up to China and India. Likewise, they all hope to cash in on China’s economic growth and would seem willing to sacrifice their standing on human rights and democracy to gain these profits and expand their influence with China.

These motives have led the EU and its members both collectively and individually to disregard America’s urgings that the embargo is retained. Washington’s objections to the removal of the embargo fall under two broad categories. First, removing the embargo allows China to obtain new capabilities which will be used to threaten American influence, capabilities, and friends, if not allies in the West Pacific and Asia. Moreover, technologies that the U.S. has developed with the EU will now be available to some degree for China to use. Since Chinese planners hardly bother to conceal that America is the projected main obstacle to China’s aspirations as a leading player in Asia and world politics, U.S. frustration over the EU’s decision seems understandable. Indeed, Washington has strongly opposed any attempt by its friends to sell weapons to China as Israel’s experiences in 2000 and since can testify.

Second, there is no sign that China’s overall human rights record has improved despite the changes in the country since 1989. While China may be a much more prosperous and even freer country, none of those freedoms are anchored in stable legal human rights and can be removed at any time. Removing the embargo gives China a “good housekeeping seal of approval” and rewards China’s continued obstruction of democratic reform. At a time when the rhetoric and policy of promoting global democratization is trump in Washington, as shown in President Bush’s second inaugural speech, for the EU to reward China’s trampling of human rights hardly signifies a willingness to cooperate with America.

However, as we have seen, the repercussions of this deal go far beyond the strengthening of China’s defense capability, the further weakening of transatlantic solidarity, or a further erosion of Taiwan’s and America’s position in the Pacific. Nor do those consequences merely affect the EU’s ability to play a prominent role in Asia. As we have seen, these consequences have great significance for Russia, and will also undoubtedly add to the complexities of Japanese and Indian defense decision making. If Moscow loses its best source of leverage on China, how will that affect the future of Sino-Russian relations as well as the status of Russia’s defense industrial complex? What will the end of the embargo mean for Indo-American, Indo-European, and Indo-Russian relations or for the future of the relationship between Taiwan and America? How will Japan react to this development? At this stage none of those questions can be answered with any reliability or certainty. But these are among the real and critical issues which will emerge once the EU makes its decision.

Stephen Blank is a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.