China’s lucre won’t end EU arms embargo
By Trefor Moss
It's time for the European Union to start selling arms to China. Or so think
some influential Eurocrats, who argue that the largely symbolic arms-sales ban,
introduced in 1989, has far outlived its usefulness.
There's no denying that Europe needs the money which Chinese arms deals could
bring, or that the European Union wants a better strategic foothold in Asia.
But what of the moral arguments that justified the embargo when it was
In December, Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign
affairs, said in a report to European Union (EU) leaders
that the embargo was a "major impediment" to EU-China relations. (She's right:
Beijing regards the arms ban as an insult.) While not actually calling for the
sales ban to be scrapped, Ashton recommended that it be looked at again as the
EU reformulates its China strategy.
Then, in early January, an unnamed EU official told French reporters that the
anti-embargo camp now had enough momentum to kill the ban by the end of 2011.
Some EU members, notably Spain, have opposed the embargo for a long time; but
now, the source said, the traditionally pro-embargo nations were also endorsing
a more China-friendly position.
The official may have gone off script, however. In clarifying the EU's
position, a Brussels spokesperson insisted that while Ashton was indeed
"continuing to hold discussions about the embargo with member states" it was
not due to be lifted any time soon. There was an air of frustration to the
spokesperson's denials: the establishment of Ashton's role in late 2009 was
meant to give the EU a unified voice on foreign-policy issues, yet individual
member states - or at least their officials - continue to stand on their own
On a visit to Europe last week, Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang committed to
buying 6 billion euro (US$7.7 billion) of Spanish debt in order to help keep
Madrid afloat - which makes Spain's motives for wanting to wave Beijing's flag
on the arms question easy enough to understand. And, clearly, there would be
opportunities for European arms companies to sell into the Chinese market - a
market, moreover, that might have disappeared in a decade or two as China
becomes increasingly self-reliant in the military field. If European firms want
to sell weapons to China, the time is definitely ripe. And if France can sell
amphibious assault ships to Russia - as it did in December for around 1 billion
euros - then why not to China, too?
No one can deny the potential of China as a market for hi-tech weaponry. Yet
the imposition of the embargo had nothing to do with economics, and its lifting
should likewise not be determined by economic circumstance - a point that
European officials lobbying for an end to the embargo choose to ignore. In the
wake of Tiananmen, the operative issue was human rights, with Beijing having
shown a willingness to use its military hardware against the Chinese people.
The EU spokesperson told Asia Times Online that when it comes to lifting the
embargo "human rights is still the relevant issue; it is not an economic
decision". How, then, should the embargo be viewed in 2011 through the
non-economic lens of the EU's Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, a set of
non-binding principles that comprise both human rights and security
Three of the code's numerous criteria for restricting arms exports appear
relevant. First is the "clear risk that the proposed export might be used for
internal repression". In China's case, this danger still remains. If another
crackdown in downtown Beijing seems hard to imagine, military action in Tibet
or Xinjiang is not such a remote possibility.
Second is the risk that the exported weapons might be used "to assert by force
a territorial claim". This would rule out the sale of technology like the
French amphibious assault ships recently acquired by Moscow. Tensions in the
Taiwan Strait may be at an all-time low, but Beijing's procurement of European
weapon systems could conceivably upset the current balance there, not to
mention having implications for the various island territories whose ownership
China disputes with Japan, Vietnam and others.
Third is the risk of the arms being used against "friends, allies or other
member states". Again, the risk does exist, most likely in the event of a
Taiwan crisis that could bring Chinese forces into conflict with the US.
Politics and economics have been allowed to creep into the debate surrounding
the embargo, but these three criteria, based solely on human rights and
security, should be the real tests of whether the embargo can be lifted.
Chinese politicians may claim that the embargo is an anachronism, but the EU is
right to retain the ban in the light of its own code.
"There is an undercurrent in Brussels which says why do we want this legacy
[dating back to 1989] when the embargo is purely symbolic," says Alexander
Neill, head of the Asia program at the Royal United Services Institute, a
London-based think-tank. "But what it really boils down to is the Tiananmen
incident and what it represents, the issue of human rights; and until the UK
[and other pro-embargo countries] see progress on that issue, they won't allow
a lift." US opposition to the lifting of the ban would also be fierce, even if
all 27 EU member states ever managed to form a consensus on the question of
ending the restrictions.
The symbolism of the ban is certainly more important than its practical
effects. Chinese generals like to boast of their modernization successes in the
teeth of Western embargoes, and the US and the EU already sell China plenty of
dual-use technology, from which the military undoubtedly benefits. Thus for
China the embargo remains, according to Neill, a "political irritant", rather
than a potential deal-breaker in sensitive negotiations about European debt
relief. The health of the eurozone is too important to China's own interests
for Beijing to make financial support for Spain and other struggling European
economies in any way dependent on the embargo being annulled, however much
China's more fervid netizens would like to see Beijing dictate harsher terms to
the beggarly Europeans.
The arms embargo will therefore survive unless one of two things changes:
either China must chalk up substantial progress on human rights as regards
political activists and ethnic minorities; or the Chinese must force Europe's
hand by making financial support a condition of the embargo's disappearance.
With both scenarios unlikely, it is hard to see the EU dropping the embargo in
2011, or even in the next decade.
Trefor Moss is a freelance journalist who covers Asian politics, in particular
defense, security and economic issues. He is a former Asia-Pacific editor for
Jane's Defense Weekly.