China and the EU
30 September 2004
Why scrapping the ban on arms sales would be a mistake
ONCE a rebel and proud of it, these days China counts itself among the world's great powers and craves the respect it feels such status should bring. The European Union, equally keen to be accepted as an emerging power to be reckoned with, sees China as a potential "strategic partner". Before too long, on current trends, each may well become the other's largest trading partner. As China takes on more of a role in world affairs, from trade and finance to diplomacy and peacekeeping, the two have much business to do. But for China there is a stain on this new-found friendship that it wants removed: the EU's 15-year-old ban on arms sales to China.
At high-level meetings with Europeans, such as next week's ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) summit in Vietnam, and the annual EU-China summit later in the year, it will lobby strenuously, over equally strenuous objections coming from America, for the embargo finally to be lifted.
And 15 years on, why not? The trouble is that, by setting aside the ban to please its new friend, Europe could end up shooting itself in the foot.
Dropping the ban enjoys some support in Europe. Imposed after the 1989 massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, it is now an anachronism, argues France. Germany, Spain and Italy, among others, would probably agree. The world has moved on; today's China is a modern, more stable place. Why bracket it with Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe, three other miscreant regimes singled out for similar opprobrium? Anyway, lifting the ban on China would be little more than a symbolic gesture since,unlike the Russians, the Europeans won't be lining up to sell state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, bombers, submarines and warships--the EU's code of conduct on arms sales will see to that.
Yet keeping the ban would be a symbol of a different kind. Although much time has indeed passed since Tiananmen, some who survived the bloodshed to be locked up in 1989 are still behind bars. China's poor human-rights record has improved a bit, yet people are still put in jail for their political or religious beliefs, and the government has yet to ratify the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. None of this has stopped China joining the WTO, or prevents it trading with all and sundry, including America. But that makes the symbolism of the EU's arms ban, like America's, that much more important: a reminder that the outside world still cares.
Keeping the ban, which covers defence technology as well as weapons, has strategic as well as political value. China's arms build-up in recent years has been aimed chiefly at intimidating Taiwan, which it claims is a renegade province that it will eventually recover, by force if need be. Some Europeans think this is no concern of theirs; anyway it is America, not Europe, that is pledged to help Taiwan should China's threats turn into aggression. But that is dangerously short-sighted. Europe's considerable interests in Asia would suffer badly in the event of any dust-up between the region's largest and fourth-largest economies. And if America were then to find itself facing off over Taiwan with a China equipped in part by its own NATO allies, the transatlantic alliance itself could become another among the casualties.
Might the EU's code of conduct help guard against such a self-defeating outcome? It calls for licences to be denied where equipment might be used to abuse human rights, press territorial claims by force, or harm the interests of friends or allies. But the code is not binding; governments can interpret it as they see fit, and some are clearly keen to start selling again. EU experts have been working on ways to tighten the code, making it easier to find out who proposes to sell what--and not just to China. But no one doubts that, with the ban lifted, more militarily useful things would get through. China would be just as pleased with western communications, radar and other technologies as with more obviously offensive weapons.
This does not mean that the ban can never be lifted. But Europeans should first expect a sustained improvement in China's human-rights record and, above all, a recognition that, whatever its differences with Taiwan, these must be settled peacefully. Instead of wringing its hands over whether to lift its ban, the EU should be pointing out to China that there are limits to friendship that only China itself can remove.