Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 6

The European Union (EU) is poised to lift its arms sales embargo on China, imposed in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, within the next few months. But the move may well exacerbate Europe’s relationship not only with the United States but with Japan as well. President George Bush made it clear during his visit to Europe in February that the United States remains strongly opposed to the lifting of the ban. At a meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels, Bush said: “There is deep concern in our country that a transfer of weapons would be a transfer of technology to China, which would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan.”

The United States fears any new Chinese capabilities in the event of a Mainland attack against Taiwan, especially given yesterday’s passage of the new Anti-Secession Law by China’s National People’s Congress which authorizes the use of force if Taiwan should seek formal independence. Other events have made the already delicate situation even more complicated. The United States and Japan issued a joint statement in February calling on China to renounce the use of force, saying that the Taiwan issue was a common security concern for both Washington and Tokyo. Beijing immediately accused them of interfering in matters relating to China’s sovereignty.

If the EU were to lift the arms embargo at this time, it would look as though Europe and China were joining forces against the United States and Japan. This is clearly something that the EU is reluctant to do, and so the lifting of the arms embargo may be delayed.

In December, during its annual summit meeting with China, the EU sent Beijing a “positive signal” by suggesting that the embargo may be lifted in the first half of this year. Nicolas Kerlerous, the spokesman on external relations for the EU’s Council of Ministers, said then that the EU “has an objective to lift the embargo during the first half of next year,” although warning that achieving the objective “can never be guaranteed.” These remarks reflected a “conclusions statement” issued by EU leaders after the summit meeting in Beijing. According to the document, EU leaders “invited the next Presidency [of the EU] to finalize the well-balanced work in order to allow for a decision” on revising the EU’s code of conduct on arms exports. The document added: “The result of any decision [to lift the embargo] should not be an increase of arms exports from EU member states to China, neither in quantitative nor qualitative terms.”

The American Congress, however, has threatened to retaliate if the EU were to end the arms embargo. In an attempt to defuse the dispute, the EU is sending a high-level delegation to Washington this week, headed by Annalisa Giannella, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s personal representative on nonproliferation issues. The EU has assured the U.S. that lifting the arms embargo will be primarily of symbolic value because the ban will be replaced by a strict code of conduct. However, so far, the Americans have not found that to be reassuring.

China, too, has asserted that it has no plans to make large-scale purchases of European weapons. “To demand the lifting of [the] arms sales embargo does not mean that China would like to buy advanced weapons from Europe,” Premier Wen Jiabao said to journalists at a China-EU summit in December. “Rather, it is aimed to oppose political discrimination against China.” It appears that EU leaders, responding to pressure from Beijing, simply hope to remove a political irritant in their relationship with China by lifting the arms embargo.

However, neither China nor the EU has succeeded in easing American concerns that Beijing would be able to obtain access to military technology that might change the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese are believed to be interested not so much in weaponry as in software and in communications and electronic equipment.

Ultimately, what may turn out to be at least as effective as a code of conduct is the self-interest of European defense contractors. The United States spends more on defense than the rest of the world put together and is an important customer for large European defense companies, such as the British firm BAE systems and EADS, a Franco-German conglomerate. Mike Turner, the chief executive officer of BAE Systems, has been quoted as saying that his company “will do nothing that will jeopardize [its] position with the U.S. They are a very, very important customer.”

Actually, even with the embargo, EU countries are able to sell “non-lethal” weapons to China, from helicopters to advanced radar and diesel engines for submarines. The EU’s annual report on arms exports show the value of licenses to sell arms to China totaled €416 million in 2003, against €210 million for 2002. In fact, even the United States, which has its own arms embargo against China, sells some arms to that country. According to Robert Karniol, Asia specialist for Jane’s Defense Weekly, the U.S. has sold jet engines for China’s J-8 trainer/light attack aircraft.

In reality, the EU review on the arms sales issue has been based on three criteria: China’s human rights record, tension with Taiwan and the code of conduct. However, China’s vociferous objections to linking the arms sales embargo to its human rights performance has forced the EU to down-play this aspect. China insists that the embargo should be lifted because it is a “leftover” from the Cold War and is now incompatible with the all-round development of China-EU relations. As a result, the EU refrains from saying openly that human rights is a factor.

Nevertheless, the Dutch government made clear while it held the EU presidency in the second half of last year that China’s human rights record is, in fact, relevant. “I stress that there is no linkage between the lifting of the arms embargo and human rights,” Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot said in October. “But on the other hand we would welcome, of course, positive signals on the Chinese side, for example, the ratification of the convention on civil and political rights [and] the release of prisoners who have been imprisoned after the Tiananmen Square events” of 1989. (More than a dozen individuals arrested in 1989 are believed to be still serving prison terms.)

While China has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, its parliament has not yet ratified the treaty. But in December, China said it is committed to ratification and would do so as soon as possible. Human rights organizations have also called on China to take steps to improve human rights, including a moratorium on executions as a first step toward the abolition of the death penalty. China recently announced that it would reduce the type of cases for which the death penalty can be used. “In future amendments of the criminal law,” Vice Justice Minister Zhang Jun said recently, “the legislature might remove capital punishment as an option in punishing certain crimes.” But even such advances on the human rights front would not make lifting the embargo any easier, as the United States remains the major obstacle.

The EU and China have forged what they call a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Beijing has said that it is inappropriate for the EU to maintain an arms embargo against its strategic partner. Prime Minister Wen has threatened to downgrade the relationship if the embargo is not lifted. The EU is now China’s largest trading partner while China is the EU’s second largest trading partner, after the United States. The economies of the EU and China are largely complementary since Europe has a strong industrial base, capital and technology while China offers a huge market and low-cost labor.

In addition, China and Europe – or at least certain major European countries, such as France and Germany – also share a common geopolitical outlook. They do not like the idea of the United States being the world’s only superpower and wish to foster a multi-polar world to constrain American power. But, if the EU does proceed to lift the embargo without first addressing Washington’s concerns, it is likely that the United States would retaliate. Congress, for example, might well complicate pending legislation that would loosen technology transfers to Britain and other allies. There may even be a move to punish Britain, America’s closest European ally, for not blocking the lifting of the embargo.

But the true linchpin seems to be the Taiwan issue: if tensions between China and Taiwan ease, the likelihood of U.S. military intervention in the Straits would dramatically decrease. Therefore the EU would feel less inhibited about lifting the embargo, which is seen as an obstacle to an even closer relationship between the EU and China.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong based journalist and commentator.