Despite U.S. opposition, the European Union is proceeding with plans to lift the arms embargo against China by June 2005. The ban had been imposed following the June 1989 crackdown on democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square. Beijing is looking for alternative sources for the arms it currently buys from Russia, as there has been friction between the two sides over Moscow’s reluctance to sell its most advanced technology to China.
Dropping the embargo could accelerate China’s military buildup, undermine stability in the Pacific, and endanger Russian interests. Although Russia could rightfully be concerned about the proposed EU policy change, Moscow’s response remains muted.
So far, Moscow has made no official comment on the EU plans to end the arms embargo against China. Traditionally, Russian officials are reluctant to comment on issues of arms trade.
However, the official Russian media views the Tiananmen embargo issue in terms of geopolitical relations between the United States and the EU, while lifting the embargo is considered to be detrimental to U.S. policies concerning Taiwan (Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 26). There is concern that China’s ongoing military buildup could entail military action against Taiwan to force unification, a development with unpredictable repercussions for the entire Asia-Pacific region.
Most of China’s arms imports now come from Russia. Beijing and Moscow are already acting as strategic partners that seek to counter U.S. influence, especially in resource-rich Central Asia. Subsequently, Russian official mouthpieces tend to dismiss concerns that revoking the EU arms embargo could exacerbate the ongoing shift in the balance of power across the region.
Last week, the official Voice of Russia radio highlighted a statement by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman that said lifting the EU arms embargo against China would not affect anyone’s interests and would not undermine stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Dropping the European embargo is unlikely to produce a sudden growth in China’s military might, according to the radio’s commentary (Voice of Russia, February 22).
Russian official media outlets have highlighted the geopolitical angle of the Tiananmen embargo issue. During U.S. President George W. Bush’s recent European tour, the U.S. leader and his European counterparts agreed on all issues, except plans to lift the arms embargo against China (Izvestiya, February 24). But so far, differences on the China issue have not affected a move towards reconciliation between the United States and Europe (Kommersant-Vlast, February 28).
In contrast, non-official Russian publications have assessed the situation in blunt terms, expressing concerns that the sale of EU arms to China would mean that European weapons could be used against Russia. “China no longer wants Russian weapons,” the GlobalRus.ru website noted in a comment entitled “Farewell to Russian Arms.”
Some Russian analysts believe that China also has an eye towards dominating Northeast Asia, a plan that would be facilitated with European weapons. Specifically, Russian arms exports allowed China to build up its air and naval forces, while Beijing presumably eyes the EU aid to beef up its land forces. China does not want to depend on Russia to equip its land forces, which could be used against Russia potentially (GlobalRus.ru, February 18).
Meanwhile, the Europeans, notably the French, are pushing to lift the embargo not out of pure financial considerations, but in an attempt to balance America’s global power (GlobalRus.ru, February 18).
Another potential cause for concern in Moscow is that EU arms will compete with Russian arms producers in terms of quality. The Chinese have procured Russian fighters, diesel submarines, destroyers, and surface-to-air missiles, but they need state-of-the-art communications, computers, plus surveillance and reconnaissance systems to make that military hardware more effective (Lenta.ru, February 22). Therefore, it is understood that Russian arms exports to China are set to face formidable European competition.
Apart from bilateral arrangements, Moscow also has a multi-lateral vehicle for security interaction with Beijing: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a six-member group that includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO represents the first time China has committed itself to a regional collective security agreement.
Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, as well as Armenia and Belarus, are also members of an alliance of former Soviet republics known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or the CSTO. Within the framework of the CSTO, Moscow has pledged to supply weapons to other member states at Russia’s domestic prices, which are significantly lower than international rates. It is understood that a similar initiative for the SCO could eventually give Russia a competitive edge over future EU arms exports to China.
Surprisingly, Russia advocates closer ties between the SCO and the West. Last week, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for cooperation between the SCO and NATO. “The CSTO has already initiated [efforts] to establish interaction with NATO,” Lavrov told a press conference following the February 25 SCO ministerial meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan (Interfax, February 25). The meeting also reportedly highlighted plans to sign a nuclear-free zone treaty for Central Asia later this year, but made no mention of other security arrangements, including arms trade.
Although affecting Russia’s interests, the embargo issue largely remains a problem for U.S.-EU-China relations. During his European tour in February 2005, President George W. Bush said there was “deep concern” in the United States that lifting the European Union’s arms embargo against China would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan. Also in February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution (411-3) that condemned the European Union’s plans.
Nonetheless, French President Chirac announced after talks with President Bush that Europe was about to remove “the last obstacles” to its relations with China. On February 22, the Chinese Foreign Ministry indicated that lifting the “erroneous and outdated measure” would help develop China-EU relations.