February 4, 2010
France and Germany sought the lifting of the EU arms embargo in 2004 but Washington insisted on the embargo being maintained. The embargo was lifted against Uzbekistan last October, despite continuing concerns about human rights in the central Asian nation. This leaves China in the company of a handful of countries, including Congo, North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The Obama administration has recently announced the proposed sale of a $6.4 billion package to Taiwan.
How would you interpret these two decisions and understand Washington’s actions, were you Chinese? Might you not feel that you were being discriminated against?
The Spanish EU presidency has indicated that it is willing to reconsider the embargo, imposed over 20 years ago following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on Chinese pro-democracy protesters. Following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 26 January, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, said that his country was “weighing the pros and cons” of lifting the ban.
The last public debate on this issue produced more heat than light. Emotive statements won the day, such as voices in the US Congress saying:
“They’re talking about helping the Chinese kill Americans more effectively.”
It is to be hoped that any new debate will begin with an understanding of the facts:
The embargo is in the form of a brief, non-legally binding European Council Declaration adopted in Madrid in 1989. The embargo’s scope is not clearly defined. Different Member States interpret the embargo in different ways. It condemns the repression in China and requests that the Chinese authorities cease executions and respect human rights. The declaration sets out the measures agreed by the Member States, including the suspension of military cooperation and high-level contacts, reduction of cultural, scientific and technical cooperation programmes and prolongation of visas to Chinese students.
The specific wording of the arms restrictions on China calls for the:
“…interruption by the Member States of the Community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China.”
The declaration does not clarify the meaning of the term “military
cooperation”, does not contain a list of arms that come within the scope of the phrase “trade in arms”, and does not contain exceptions or review clauses.
The principal mechanisms governing military exports to China are national export controls and the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, which is also not mandatory. The Code sets out eight criteria for EU members to utilize when reviewing licence requests and making decisions on whether or not to make an arms export. It was always made clear to Beijing that the code would be strengthened before the embargo is lifted. There is a high measure of technical agreement on amending the code but no political will.
Thus the embargo is solely symbolic: the code controls sales. Arguably, it is easy for China to buy arms from the EU without the ban being lifted than if the ban were lifted and to code strengthened.
Figures are not forthcoming on direct and indirect sales to China by the EU Member States and the US (believed to take place mainly through Israel.)
China considers an end to the ban to be long overdue. “The embargo is outdated, it does not go along with the partnership between China and the EU.” said Wang Xining, spokesman for the Chinese mission to the EU.
US human rights policy is riddled with hypocrisy. Leaving aside its Guantamano Bay and Abu Ghraib prison practices, the US – and Europe too – continue to supply arms to several countries with poor human rights records.
The ban has not prevented China from building up its military strength, with an official annual defence budget in 2009 of $70.3 billion (estimated by the Pentagon at over $105 billion and $150 billion.)
Lifting the embargo
US pressure is still probably the strongest influence on keeping the ban in place. Probable proponents include France, Spain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Romania. Germany and the UK are not inveterately opposed to the lifting of the embargo, but do not wish to fall out with the US over this issue. Italy’s position appears contradictory.
The European Parliament was opposed to lifting the embargo in 2008, and no doubt remains so. Although the decision is for the Member States to take, Parliament’s influence on the national political scenes should not be underestimated.
It is hard to see how the present negotiations for a Partnership & Cooperation Agreement (PCA) will deliver worthwhile results. I do not believe that any serious progress can be made without an EU commitment to lift the arms embargo.
The Commission should categorically state that the embargo in no way controls the sale of arms – that task falls to the arms export code, which will be tightened. Wen Jiabao has offered to give an undertaking not to buy arms from EU Member States. Hypocritically, arms-producing Member States may not agree to this.
It is to be questioned what arms European countries do not sell to the Chinese which they cannot already buy or produce to the same quality. The Commission should ask for an authoritative, independent report on the effect of the embargo and the arms code (and a revised one), examine what arms are currently sold to China by and what arms China cannot currently acquire, and make recommendations. There should be a public hearing.
In my view, the Chinese will not sign the PCA without an EU commitment to lift the arms embargo. Beijing is right that listing China among a handful of pariah states is totally inconsistent with the treatment of a strategic partner. Therefore, the EU will have to decide whether or not it wants a PCA.