Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Lifting the Embargo on Selling Arms to China: A Crisis on the Make




On June 4, 1989, the Chinese army violently suppressed Square "Tiananmen" protesters, mainly students, who demanded more government openness in the capital Beijing. That was the end of what was known as the Beijing Spring. The campaign of repression provoked international outrage leading most of the world to meet in a summit in Madrid. In this summit, European officials adopted a lot of sanctions against Beijing, including an embargo on the sale of weapons.


Since the fall of 2003, France initiated a campaign calling for lifting the embargo on arms sales to China. France worked to convince its European partners with the support of Germany to lift the arms embargo on the basis that it China has come a long way and its economic boom will be reflected on its human rights record. The EU decision took Washington by surprise. For the United States, China is the main challenger that must be dealt with carefully.


Washington put pressure on Europeans not to lift the embargo on China. Washington believes that the time for lifting the embargo has not yet come and called on the European Union to maintain the ban on arms sales. The State Department declared its concerns that lifting the ban and any decision in this direction will not send the appropriate signal to Beijing. Washington says that the arms sales to China would impair regional military balances, and might be used by Beijing against Taiwan, which the United States pledges to protect.


However, not all EU members approve lifting of the embargo. French President Jacques Chirac believed that the EU will not start the sale of arms to China once the ban on arms sales is lifted. He said that lifting the ban would not mean a change in European policies on arms exports, and that the Union's plan to lift the ban was aimed at normalization of relations with China as the EU primary economic partner. For its part, London says that lifting the embargo has become more difficult, after the Chinese parliament approved the law that gives the military the right to use force to thwart any attempt by Taiwan to gain independence. Added to this, Britain criticized the lack of significant improvements by Beijing on human rights. The European Union plans to end the embargo imposed after the bloody crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, in the hope that lifting the ban will improve relations with Beijing. The Union "code of conduct" covers all arms exports from the EU and required Member States to inform each other what it sells to China, but Washington and Tokyo believe that the new EU restrictions are weaker than it should be.

The EU step to lift the embargo will undoubtedly contribute to making China a stronger international player and a great threat to the U.S. security interests and friends.


The EU Position: Prospects of New Strategic Relations



On the economic level, it seems that the main motivation that stands behind lifting the arms embargo against China is "purely commercial." In light of the current global economic crisis and the falling growth and rising unemployment rates the EU is sparing no effort to secure more export contracts with the largest emerging economy in the world. Indeed, in the past years the EU has been the biggest trading partner of China in order to get more civil and commercial contracts. Europe even sold arms to China in 2003 despite the embargo.  Member States of the European Union approved licenses (worth $ 500 million) to export arms to China. France justified this step by the importance to export military technology to China instead of allowing it to develop its own technology. It is known also Russian arms sales to China kept the remainder of the Russian arms industry going, and it seems the Europeans imagine that the same thing could happen with their arms industries and thus they are willing to lift the embargo on arms sales to China.


Moreover, China is the largest creditors in the world; its foreign exchange reserves reached almost 3.2 trillion dollars. Europe is looking forward to make Beijing invest part of these vast reserves as loans, to save the "euro zone" from its crisis. In exchange, China will benefit politically from its support for Europe as it is possible that Europeans will lift the embargo on arms trade with China.


On the political level, strengthening cooperation between China and the EU became a strategic necessity. Since 2003, the two parties agreed on a range of issues such as multi-polarization and civilization in the world and establishing more fair and rational global political and economic system. In this sense, the EU view China as a future strategic partner and the embargo hinders the development of this partnership with China especially that the embargo is considered degrading since it puts China in the same rank as Zimbabwe, Burma, and Myanmar. The EU also believes that China came along way since 1989 in the issues of labor camps, death sentences, administrative detentions and minorities and religious rights although there are still lingering issues concerning human rights and Taiwan. Therefore, lifting the embargo is a step to normalize relations with China and help it integrate in the modern liberal world as a responsible player.



The U.S. & its Asian Position: Containing the rising Strategic Threat


During the past years, there were much gravitation between the EU and the United States over lifting the arms embargo on China. The many attempts by the EU to do so were delayed or aborted under strong U.S. pressure. The U.S. argument was based on the continuity of China’s human rights violations that formed the basis for the embargo at the first place and the fear that any expanded EU arms exports to China will threaten U.S. security interests as well as the interests of its friends in Asia.

So, why does the United States fear EU lifting of arms embargo on China?

First, the United States considers China a dormant strategic competitor and fears that after the lifting of EU arms embargo, EU arms imports would hurt its interests in Asia and the Pacific. The main U.S. Naval Forces are allocated in Asia now, thus, Washington fear that China might obtain defense technology that enables it to counter the U.S. aircraft carriers. It will be an irony if the U.S. troops in Asia are fought with French or German weapons.

Moreover, EU companies involved in U.S-EU defense cooperation might transfer U.S.  defense technology to China[1].

Second, the United States is concerned of strengthening the economic and political ties between the EU and China by opening another market when China purchase weapons from the EU. Establishing strategic partnership with China will risk the EU support for the United States in case of future confrontations with China.


Third, at present, Russia monopolizes arms sales to China but reserves the secrets of much defense technology. Opening the EU arms market for China will force Russia to sell the most advanced weapons to Beijing. For example, Russia did not wish to sell long-range strategic bombers to China; however, Moscow agreed to sell to China after the EU expressed its intentions to lift the arms embargo.


Fourth, the situation of human rights in China is the same as it was at the time of "Tiananmen"
violations. Therefore, lifting the embargo and enhancing economic relations with China will send the wrong message to Beijing. According to Amnesty International, “an estimated 500,000 people are currently enduring punitive detention without charge or trial, Harassment, surveillance, house arrest, and imprisonment of human rights defenders are on the rise, and censorship of the Internet and other media has grown. Repression of minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians, and of Falun Gong practitioners and Christians who practice their religion outside state-sanctioned churches continues”[2].


Fifth, lifting the embargo will also have critical consequences on U.S. friends and allies. It will increase China’s ability to threaten or use force against Taiwan, Tibet, Japan, and others. In fact, a decision like this would drag the whole region in arms race and instability.

In addition, lifting the embargo will increase China’s weapons sale to volatile areas such as Central-Asia and the Middle East. There is no guarantee that modern weapons and defense technology would not fall into the hands of terrorist organizations.  



These concerns have no or little significance unless really a conflict arises between China and the United States. However, the question whether the European arms will be used against U.S. soldiers is in fact related to the future geo- strategic positioning of Europe before any U.S.-China war. In the case that the EU sides with China, the lifting of the embargo will be the first step to announce the death of classical alliances created by the Cold War and instead of a U.S. ally, the EU will rise as a challenger to the United States.




Is There Any Way Out?



            China is a rising economic power in a time when the United States is suffering great economic setbacks. The one aspect that enables the United States to sustain its global hegemony is its military supremacy. If China obtains modern weapons and defense technology from the EU, Washington’s effort to protect its global position will be faced with critical challenges. Thus, the United States views the EU step as adding to what it perceive a growing strategic threat.

The EU on the other hand, sees China as a strong economic and political partner. Thus, the EU intend to engage with China bilaterally and collectively especially at this time (economic crisis) to help it out of its troubles. 


The United States insists on its demands not to lift the embargo under any circumstances. The decision to do that should be made in Washington when it deems it wise and within limits, conditions, and timing that it sees convenient. 

The EU, on the other side, believe that any solution should be based on U.S. understanding of the EU attempts to solve its economic crisis and of its pursuit of efficient export regime based on the EU own foreign interests.


To bridge the gap between the two views, one of the suggestions was to set a clear and defined list that contains all the items and equipment that should not be sold to China. Another solution, was replacing the embargo with a stronger ‘Code of Conduct’ on arms exports that will better control arms sales to China, although the United States and Japan are skeptical about the efficiency of such code in preventing transferring modern defense technology to China.




[1] Kristin Archick, Richard F. Grimmett, Shirley Kan, “European Union’s Arms Embargo on China: Implications and Options for U.S. Policy”. CRS Report for Congress, April 15, 2005, Pp. CR3 <>
[2] Amnesty International, “China Human Rights”, 2012 <>

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