Int'l Herald Tribune

Keep the ban on arms for China

Europe's embargo

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

By Roger Cliff and Evan S. Medeiros

WASHINGTON -- When the European Council meets at the end of March, European leaders may decide to lift the European Union's 15-year-old embargo on weapons transfers to China, which U.S. and European policy makers imposed in 1989 after the Chinese military's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.

Lifting the embargo now, however, would send mixed signals to China on human rights and on the Taiwan issue, assist China's rapidly accelerating military modernization program, undermine stability across the Taiwan Strait, and further exacerbate tensions in trans-Atlantic relations.

Momentum for this policy change has been growing over the last year. Beijing has pressed European policy makers to make this change, arguing it is needed for China and the EU to develop fully their newly minted "strategic partnership."

As a result, prominent European leaders have publicly stated a desire to eliminate the ban. During the visit to France by President Hu Jintao of China in late January, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said "the embargo is out of date."

But there are many important reasons for continuing the arms embargo.

European policy makers argue that China's poor human rights situation - the original motivation for the ban - has improved significantly since 1989, and thus the embargo is no longer justified. Yet while living standards have undoubtedly improved in the last decade, China's human rights situation still has a long way to go.

China remains a dictatorship that harshly suppresses any perceived political opposition. Examples abound. The government still hasn't lived up to President Jiang Zemin's 1997 pledge to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Chinese prisons. President Hu's crackdown late last year on high-profile investigative newspapers and magazines is equally worrisome. These and other actions were listed in the European Commission's 2003 report on EU-Chinese relations.

The focus on China's human rights situation, however, misses the real issue at stake - the rapid modernization of China's military and the implications for stability, including the possibility of an outbreak of armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Lifting the EU embargo would provide significant and long-lasting assistance to Chinese military modernization at a time when cross-strait stability is fading fast.

Since the early 1990s, the Chinese military has been engaged in a sustained drive to improve its capabilities. For much of the last decade, this has involved buying advanced off-the-shelf weapons systems from Russia. This approach has significantly raised the level of China's warfighting abilities in a relatively short time.

As a result, the People's Liberation Army has rapidly crossed critical modernization thresholds to the extent that it can now leverage new weapons technology imports in ways more militarily significant than in past years.

Access to European weapon technologies, which are nearly as advanced as U.S. capabilities in some areas, would also enable China's defense industries to accelerate their modernization by filling critical technology gaps. European technology transfers before 1989, for example, played a key role in enabling China to develop modern surface-to-air and air-to-air missile systems in the 1980s and 1990s.

These developments would have a direct impact on stability across the Taiwan Strait and on trans-Atlantic relations. China's military modernization is largely aimed at preparing for a potential conflict over Taiwan. One of the central elements of China's effort is to acquire weapons capabilities to prevent and, ultimately, to counter U.S. military intervention in a Taiwan conflict. If the EU ban was lifted and conflict erupted, U.S. forces could conceivably find themselves under attack by Chinese weapons produced with the help of America's NATO allies.

Some observers maintain that lifting the embargo is not so consequential because a EU code of conduct governing military exports would limit arms trade with China. This argument is far from reassuring.

After abandonment of the embargo, the norm against EU arms sales to China would be significantly diminished, sending a strong signal to defense enterprises throughout Europe. The same arguments used to scrap the embargo could be leveraged to overcome the political restraints of the code of conduct.

Furthermore, the code - unlike the embargo - is not legally binding, and some defense companies might be willing to pay the costs of violating its "politically binding" provisions.

Indeed, it is not clear that violations would even matter. Major EU members have already violated, with relative impunity, key provisions of the Maastricht Treaty relating to fiscal responsibility. Even when the European Union expands to the east in May, there are few assurances that the new members would uniformly support continuing the arms embargo. A company in the Czech Republic recently sold an advanced military radar to China.

Regardless of the understandable political motives of EU leaders who want to improve relations with China, abandoning the arms embargo would jeopardize stability in one of the most volatile parts of Asia. Selling arms to China could not only put a NATO ally at risk, it could undermine the integrity of a fraying alliance itself.

Roger Cliff and Evan S. Medeiros are political scientists at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.