A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come: The Lifting of the EU Arms Embargo on China
Later this year, the European Union (EU) will consider lifting the Tiananmen Square arms embargo against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The United States and the EU imposed the embargo following the June 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing. Lifting the embargo would endanger U.S. interests, accelerate China’s military buildup, undermine stability in the Pacific and send the wrong signal to repressive regimes everywhere.
The United States is rightfully concerned about the proposed EU policy change. First, there is concern about China’s refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. In light of China’s ongoing military buildup, Beijing might decide to coerce or take military action against Taiwan to force unification. Its recent consideration of an anti- secession law directed at Taiwan is not encouraging.
But more to the point, the sale of EU arms to China would mean that European weapons could be used against American servicemen in a military confrontation over Taiwan. Second, lifting the EU arms embargo would exacerbate the ongoing shift in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait.
In the next few years, the cross- strait conventional military balance of power will move decidedly in Beijing’s favor. This change might lead Beijing to perceive an ability to resolve Taiwan’s future through force. A miscalculation of this sort has the potential for catastrophic results.
Third, in some quarters there is significant concern that China wants to succeed the U.S. as the preeminent power in the Pacific. Increased Chinese military might derived from EU arms sales could at some point allow Chinese forces to deter, delay or deny American military intervention in the Pacific. Though many Asian countries welcome China’s economic opportunities, they are wary of Beijing when it comes to security matters. Some strategists believe that China also has an eye towards subjugating Japan and dominating Southeast Asia. Australia and Japan have already expressed their unhappiness with the EU’s change in policy.
Fourth, China’s handling of advanced conventional arms, weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles is of great concern. The PRC’s export control laws and practices leave a lot to be desired. Willful government-supported proliferation is even more troubling. China’s relationship with North Korea, Iran, Burma or even Syria could lead to sensitive European technology falling into the wrong hands.
Finally, China’s human rights record remains deeply troubling and scarcely merits reward. Just in 2004, Chinese security services harassed and detained justice-seeking mothers of Tiananmen Square victims, as well as political activists and Internet users. In fact, some suggest that China’s human rights record has regressed since 1989. Once the arms embargo is lifted, the EU will lose significant leverage with China over human rights. In addition, ending the arms embargo would send the wrong signal to other repressive regimes.
So why is Europe considering this change? Many believe that the EU is trying to curry favor with China for preferential treatment in commerce. China is one of the world’s hottest economies, and lifting sanctions may lead to large commercial deals for EU firms such as Airbus. If the political climate is right, the PRC may also look to EU companies for high-speed rail, telecommunications, satellites, energy plants and even high-end nuclear plants as China’s insatiable appetite for energy grows.
A second and more sinister reason is to open a new arms market for European weapons in China. The PRC is a veritable cash cow for arms sales. China’s defense budget — now the world’s second largest — runs $50 billion-$70 billion a year, including plenty of money for arms purchases. With declining defense budgets across Europe, China provides a golden opportunity for Europe’s beleaguered defense firms to sell arms in a growing market.
Third, from a political perspective, some EU members are looking for political cover. Should the new arms policy go awry (for example with the use of EU weapons on political dissidents, Tibetans or Uighurs), political responsibility for the policy change would be spread across the breadth of EU membership. By working under the EU’s umbrella, some states will inoculate themselves from their constituents’ disapproval for backing down on China’s human rights record.
Lastly, and on the cynical end of the scale, some believe that the EU, especially France, is attempting to balance American global power through the development of a multipolar world. In such a construct, other power centers such as China, Russia, Japan, India and the EU could counterbalance the U.S. Thus, making China more powerful would help Europe challenge the United States’ global pre eminence.
No doubt China has motivations of its own. First, Beijing continues to seek political absolution for the Tiananmen Square massacre among the international community. The recent death of former Communist Party leader, Zhao Ziyang, is a nail in the coffin of the requirement that the Chinese government account for its actions at Tiananmen; the lifting of the EU embargo would be another.
Second, China is looking for competitive pricing and alternative sources for the arms it currently buys from Russia, its main advanced-technology arms supplier. With the U.S. and EU currently out of the Chinese arms market, it’s a seller’s market for the Russians. EU arms can compete with the Russian arms producers in terms of quality and (possibly) price. This would create a buyer’s market for Beijing, decreasing dependence on Russian arms and enhancing the likelihood of generous advanced-technology transfers to the Chinese arms industry as part of any arms deal. The Chinese might also be hoping that the EU’s decision will lead to pressure in Washington from defense firms to do the same. (A change in American policy is highly improbable.)
Third, Beijing is hunting for military technology it can’t find elsewhere, especially in the Russian market. The Chinese can find top-notch fighters, diesel submarines, destroyers and surface-to-air missiles in Russia, but they may not be able to find the necessary command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems they need to make these systems more effective. The EU may be just the source for such systems.
Fourth, Beijing also would like to drive a wedge into the transatlantic alliance. China certainly would not object to having an ally in the EU, especially when jousting with the United States in the UN Security Council or other multilateral institutions over such issues as Iran’s nuclear program (where China just signed a $70 billion gas/oil deal).
Fifth, it should come as no surprise that a lifting of the arms embargo would be seen as a significant defeat for the Taiwanese in Europe and would support China’s desire to isolate Taiwan from the international community in hopes of early unification. Some would argue that if the Europeans sell arms to China, they should sell them to Taiwan as well.
There are sure to be consequences to the transatlantic relationship over a decision to lift the arms embargo against China. Even with the president’s highly successful trip, America’s perception of Europe, already troubled, will not be improved. Americans, especially veterans, would gasp at the thought that European arms might be used against American servicemen and women in a Taiwan or Korean contingency. Americans will resent a decision on the part of the Europeans that will negatively alter the security situation in a region (i.e., the Pacific) where they have no responsibility for stability or security.
Even with the advent of a new code of conduct for arms sales and other regulations, the Bush administration is right to be unhappy. But the U.S. Congress will react most strongly. There will certainly be attempts to clamp down on defense industrial cooperation with European firms and to prohibit the purchase of defense articles from EU businesses that sell arms to China.
The United States welcomes China’s peaceful integration into the international community as an open and free society through commerce, tourism, academic exchanges and official dialogue. These activities maximize the free world’s efforts to encourage positive political and social change for 1.3 billion Chinese.
But in the end, the EU’s decision to lift the arms embargo against China will not help close the transatlantic divide and may even widen it. The decision will also be perceived as an imprimatur for dismal human rights records everywhere. Finally, it could increase the likelihood of military conflict in the Pacific, which is in no one’s interest — not even the distant EU’s.
Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs and director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.