Defense News
News Report

U.S. Tries To Hold Europe to China Arms Ban

By William Matthews
Defense News, October 04, 2004

With China increasing pressure on Europe to lift a 15-year-old arms sales embargo, senior U.S. State Department and defense officials this week are headed to a second round of meetings within a month with European Union members in an effort to keep the embargo intact.

It won’t be easy, one U.S. official predicted. "Most Europeans see this as an entirely political issue," and not a serious security matter, as does the United States.

U.S. officials fear that key members of the European Union (EU) are on the verge of giving in to China.

As recently as Sept. 30, Shen Goufang, Chinese assistant foreign minister, in Beijing denounced the ban on weapon sales as a product of the Cold War and urged the European Union to lift it. Shen said China plans to press European leaders again to lift the ban during meetings in Hanoi Oct. 8-9.

Concern that EU members will lift the embargo prompted a pre-emptive response by the U.S. House of Representatives. Last May, House members approved sanctions against European companies that export critical military goods or technology to China. The House legislation would block the U.S. Defense Department from doing business with European companies that sell arms to China. However, the measure is not expected to get much support in the Senate.

The House action "was a real-world message" to Europe about how seriously the United States takes the arms embargo, a senior State Department official said. The Europeans barely reacted. U.S. officials now hope diplomatic pressure will have greater effect.

A Changing Tide

But the Europeans are less and less inclined to maintain the embargo, said Gabrielle Kohlmeier, a research assistant at the Arms Control Association. Part of the reason is because they are interested in improving relations with China, and partially because they believe the prohibitions of the embargo duplicate those spelled out in the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports. Many Europeans contend the embargo is more symbolic than real and that lifting it could improve relations while changing little, she said.

U.S. companies worry they will be hurt in two ways if the EU lifts its ban.

First, U.S. government retaliation against Europe could limit U.S. firms’ ability to work with European companies., said Joel Johnson of the Aerospace Industries Association.

But more importantly, dropping the embargo could give European companies an important head start in a vast Chinese market for items ranging from helicopters to communications equipment that U.S. companies are forbidden to sell, Johnson said.

The arms embargo was imposed by the United States and the European Union after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in which the Chinese government massacred hundreds of democracy protestors. The trade ban was intended to halt sales to China of items on the U.S. Munitions List, but various presidential waivers have enabled U.S. companies to sell military items to China, and similar exceptions have been made by European countries. Those exceptions have bolstered EU arguments that the embargo is largely symbolic.

The United States’ chief concern is that U.S. troops and allies in Asia would be the casualties if a better-armed China moved to invade Taiwan or flex military power elsewhere, Kohlmeier said.

Promising New Market

For European defense companies struggling with declining defense spending at home, China seems like a promising new market. It has an annual defense budget estimated to be the world’s third largest at $50 billion to $70 billion, and has expressed interest in weapons ranging from aircraft carriers and early warning aircraft to radar and command, control, communications, computer and intelligence systems.

During the U.S. diplomats’ previous trip to EU nations, "we were able to inject consideration of national security into the calculus" of some European nations. "It had a positive effect," the State Department official said.

That will be part of the strategy again.

Visits by U.S. officials "should stimulate a broad dialogue with Europe on where our relationship with them is going across the board," said John Tkacik, a former State Department official who is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. The meetings "may be a watershed" for the Atlantic alliance, he said.

"Is Europe more comfortable for China to be a bigger player?" Tkacik asked. "Is Europe more comfortable aligning itself with China than the United States?"

For France and Germany, the answer seems to be yes. For months, they have been urging the European Union to lift the arms embargo without conditions. But Britain appears ambivalent, Tkacik said, and Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands -- which currently holds the EU presidency -- remain committed to the arms ban.

"The challenge for the United States is to form a broader consensus" of EU countries in favor of upholding the embargo, he said, adding the State Department might accomplish that by convincing some "New Europe" countries in Eastern Europe to support efforts to maintain the arms sales ban.

Some Eastern European countries seem "more skeptical" of China and more inclined to support the embargo, the State Department official said. But the United States is reluctant to pursue a policy that pits New Europe against Old Europe, he said.