Despite speculation, EU not set to defy U.S. by lifting arms embargo on China     Print Email
Thursday, 06 January 2011

Reports of renewed efforts by France and some other member states to modify the EU’s boycott on weapons sales to China have been met with firm denials in Brussels that any change is imminent in the European stance. “The timing is wrong: it would make little difference to Beijing at this point, but it could do real damage in Washington at a moment when Europe might be able to score its biggest-ever transatlantic military sale in the EADS airborne refueling tanker,” according to a European expert. Any shift in favor of the Chinese military would probably arouse a strong anti-European backlash in the new Congress, he said.

American policy has strongly resisted any weakening in the EU ban on arms sales to China, which was imposed in 1989 after the violent repression imposed on the Tiananmen Square protests.

Tactically, there are strong attractions at this juncture for the EU to offer an olive branch to Beijing – and perhaps even for the Obama administration to signal that it might ease its pressure against any EU move to open loopholes in its embargo.

Last week China made it public that it is helping the eurozone countries in their financial crisis by continuing to buy bonds issued by Portugal (and probably Spain, too). And China’s President Hu Jintao is making an important state visit to Washington this month. The context of all these overtures is China’s bid to be treated as a “normal” new power by the existing major powers. In reality, that is probably the main objective of China’s continuing campaign against the arms embargo,

But China’s poor record in human rights (highlighted by its fury at the Nobel prize award to a Chinese dissident) have poisoned the climate for any imminent reconsideration of Western reluctance to discuss a change in the highly symbolic embargo. The European Parliament has been a strong and steady voice in keeping attention focused on this issue – one that some governments would be ready to downplay.

What does China really need militarily that the West is likely to supply? China just unveiled a stealth aircraft that it claims to have build indigenously: in practice, it was probably done with help from Russia. (The Europeans or Americans would not have sold this technology anyway, even if there were no embargo, but Russian arms exports give China an alternative to Europe and the U.S.)

As Chinese officials continue their public campaign for the embargo to be relaxed or rescinded, what can they be expecting to buy, realistically speaking? "Well, they might be hoping to buy almost anything, particularly after seeing France sell Russia an advanced amphibious assault ship this year," according to a researcher at the Washington-based "Certainly they would be shopping for advanced command and control technologies, and anything they can acquire will raise the bar for the U.S. in trying to maintain its naval superiority in that region."

The real problem is not so much military as political. U.S. policy on arms to China may still reflect what are possibly exaggerated fears about contemporary China’s threat to Taiwan. But that is a political reality in the U.S. – and one that can be applied by extension to more realistic problems such as China’s ambitions in the South China sea or its frictions with Japan.

Chinese behavior towards pro-Western countries in the region remains a real concern for Washington, especially at a time when the U.S. wants to cut its defense budget, not expand it for contingencies in Asia. Ignoring these issues, EU countries such as France and Spain have recently said that the arms ban is outdated because of China’s economic rise. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has stated that the arms ban is “a major impediment”   to her hopes for improving European strategic relations with China. For the moment, Britain seems to be the EU member state with the strongest objections to any shift on the embargo at this point – just as it was the main obstacle to earlier attempts by many EU countries to lift the embargo in 2006.

Then as now, the problem in moving forward – both for Ms Ashton and leaders such as France’s President Sarkozy and for the Obama administration – is that there is still no real dialogue in the West on what positions to take in hopes of influencing China into a more cooperative relation. When asked about how much transatlantic dialogue exists on this issue, a European diplomat replied “none at all.” That is hardly surprising, he added, when you realize that there is no serious common work on this question among EU member states themselves.


-- European Affairs