Financial Times

The world will pay for arms sales to China

By Chen Tan-sun
Foreign Minister of Taiwan
Published: October 1 2004

In recent months, pressure within Europe and elsewhere for lifting the European Union's ban on arms sales to China has been steadily mounting. With powerful vested interests behind it, the move has been described as only a matter of time. There are many reasons, however, why this would be a bad decision for Europe.

First, China, despite its economic growth, is still very much an authoritarian state. More specifically, the regime behind the military crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square remains in power. Lifting the ban would be worse than letting it completely off the hook - it would be a positive reward. The suggestion by opponents of the ban, that lifting it would not necessarily lead to European arms sales to China, is simply disingenuous. It is true that some, perhaps even most, European countries would continue to hesitate to sell weapons to such a regime, in the spirit of the EU code of conduct for arms exports. Unfortunately, it is equally clear that certain EU governments are eager to begin sales immediately, which will surely prompt arms makers in other countries to lobby for their governments to follow suit. Only an EU-wide ban can keep Europe off this slippery slope.

Second, arms sales to China would impose costs on ordinary people throughout Asia. In Taiwan, for example, people would prefer to spend more on social welfare systems such as those available to Europeans. However, faced with China's ever-improving military capabilities, Taiwan has no choice but to invest additional resources in national defence.

The sale of advanced European armaments to China would only force Taiwan and neighbouring countries to spend even more on defence. China, in fact, faces even more urgent requirements for social spending. The World Bank, for example, reports that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China. In recogni tion of such needs, several European countries are big development aid donors to China. How can this be squared with enticing China to spend valuable hard currency on military hardware?

The moral argument, therefore, against lifting the ban is unassailable. But there are also solid pragmatic reasons. As Europe's primary interest in Asia is economic, it is worth noting that European weapons sales to China would slow China's efforts to meet the social costs of development and also force its neighbours to increase defence spending. This would slow regional economic growth, reducing opportunities for European business to expand its Asian markets.

Furthermore, as China faces less external threat than at almost any time in its history, the only possible use of these weapons would be to increase Beijing's ability to wage aggressive war. China already has more than 500 ballistic missiles trained on Taiwan and props up military regimes in places such as North Korea. Enhancing the quality of its weapons could only magnify China's threat to the region and embolden hardliners in Beijing. The costs of any conflict for Europe would be grave, with around one-quarter of total EU exports directly at risk, not including knock-on effects from the global economy.

Again to take Taiwan as an example, any Chinese aggression would not only cost Europeans billions of euros of trade with Taiwan but also cause massive disruption in world markets for key items such as computers and mobile telephones. Japan, Korea and South-east Asia would suffer severely, as indeed would China's own coastal regions, where most of the country's recent boom has occurred. Clearly, Europe's overriding interest lies in preventing such a conflict. EU officials and European governments should take every opportunity to impress on Beijing the need to refrain from using force. Needless to say, offering China offensive weaponry is not the best way to send this message.

Finally, history has taught us the painful consequences of breaking up solidarity among democratic countries. Europe should note that it is not just America that is concerned about lifting the ban but rather all democratic countries in the Asia-Pacific region, because we are directly in the front line.

Rarely in foreign policy do virtuous principles and realistic interests coincide so neatly, and for so many countries. Such a broad consensus must not be abandoned merely to satisfy a narrow group of special interests. By all means, Europe should continue engagement with China, both for humanitarian ends as well to help it develop into a modern, peace-loving member of the international community. But weapons sales have no part in this process.

The writer is foreign minister of Taiwan