Far Eastern Economic Review
"Keeping the arms embargo until Beijing has improved its record on human rights is not being hostile to China"
The Fifth Column

Keep the Arms Embargo on China

By Steve Tsang

The writer is University Reader in politics at St.Anthony's College, Oxford. His most recent book is Peace and Security Across the Taiwan Strait

Issue cover-dated April 22, 2004

Javier Solana, the European Union's top representative for common foreign and security policy, is misguided in joining French President Jacques Chirac in advocating the lifting of an arms embargo on China. Significantly, the embargo is not a relic of the Cold War. EU countries exported military technology and hardware to China in the 1980s. Instead, the embargo was imposed in response to gross abuse of human rights in the Tienanmen Square Massacre. To lift the embargo before the Chinese government has atoned for machine-gunning unarmed civilians who were demonstrating peacefully, or has at least improved its human rights record to an acceptable level, sends the wrong message.

Only recently has the brave semi-retired army physician, Jiang Yanyong, appealed to the Chinese leadership to admit it was wrong in ordering the military crackdown against students and ordinary citizens in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He was apparently not punished for raising this sensitive issue. Would this have been the case had he not gained an international reputation last year when he blew the whistle on the government's cover-up of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak? If the EU lifts its arms embargo before the Chinese government has rectified the problem that prompted the embargo in the first place, it is likely to expose people like Jinag to a harsh fate. Above all, it will discourage other Chinese from asserting rights that the citizens of the EU take for granted - rights that are also enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, by the way.

Solana and Chirac have made no justifiable case for exporting arms to China. What security threats does China face today? Which country has given reasonable grounds for the EU to believe it may intend to attack or otherwise threaten China? How will the export of arms from Europe help to improve security, good order and peace in the Asia-Pacific region?

On the contrary, rising Chinese military power poses a threat to peace, order and prosperity in its neighborhood. China has deployed 500+ missiles against Taiwan, an island that does not and cannot threaten China. The Chinese government has further threatened to use force against this working democracy, where human rights are routinely respected, should Taiwan refuse to accept a Chinese plan for the eventual unification.

Tension across the Taiwan Strait remains one of the key potential flashpoints today. Among the top priorities in China's military build-up is to cheaply and vastly increase its capacity to use precision-guided munitions against Taiwan. Its missile program is significant but expensive, and therefore limited in scope. Instead, it is planning to introduce an alternative to America's Joint Direct Attack Ammunition, or JDAM - a Global Positioning System-guided smart bomb that can be mass-produced cheaply, and unlike missiles, can evade existing and planned anti-missile defense systems. China's keep interest in the European Galileo satellite project is driven largely by the prospect of acquiring an alternative to the American-operated GPS for its version of the JDAM.

An end to the embargo will enhance China's capacity to build its own version of the JDAM and other offensive capabilities. Advocates for lifting the arms ban should explain why it is in the interest of the EU to give, among other weapons, a key military technology to an authoritarian state that aims to subdue a working democracy that subscribes to the same values as the EU.

Any argument that lifting the arms embargo will draw China closer to the EU and the United States in the war against terrorism is equally faulty. Why should China, or for that matter any other authoritarian and human rights-violating state, be given hi-tech weapons as an inducement to join the common cause in eliminating the curse of our time? China joins the war against terrorism because it is in China's national interest to do so. Should the Chinese leadership cease to consider this to be the case, will the EU's willingness to sell arms to China really persuade it to act against its best interest?

Keeping the arms embargo until Beijing has improved its record on human rights is not being hostile to China. Most people in China welcome developments that will enable them to enjoy human rights taken for granted in the West and even other parts of Asia. The EU should indeed forge closer economic, cultural and other ties with China. But this should not include the export of arms or military technology.