Int'l Herald Tribune

EU must keep its ban on arms sales to China

Ethics over commerce

Thursday, August 04, 2004

By Graham Watson
Member of the European Parliament

Brussels -- The current Dutch presidency of the European Union will be required to consider the lifting of the EU's existing ban on selling arms to China. Imposed in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the current ban has been a clear gesture of Europe's ongoing dissatisfaction with the pace of political reform in China and the continuing repression of dissent by its authoritarian government. Recent pressure from within the EU to lift the ban reflects not political change in China, but a new willingness by some in Europe to ignore the lack of it.

The pressure to lift the ban has been encouraged by the European Commission and by China. The European Commission has done much to suggest that it foresees an end to the ban. The commission was one of the strongest advocates of making China part of Europe's Galileo global positioning system, a move that will ensure that China shops in the EU when it is looking for modern military hardware that operates with the assistance of GPS technology.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, presumably mindful that Germany builds stealth submarines that China desperately wants, has expressed his support for the end of the embargo. President Jacques Chirac of France, rarely squeamish in such matters, has also signaled that he would like to see the ban lifted. The fact that China would also like to buy French-made Mirage jets will no doubt have encouraged his line of reasoning.

European arms manufacturers are itching to supply China's modernizing military and are tired of watching Russia take advantage of Europe's reticence. They seem to have succeeded in passing this restlessness on to some of their governments. Beijing has been given plenty of cause to think that the end of the ban is in the cards when the EU and China hold a summit meeting in December.

There are also those who would like to keep the ban in place, most notably the United States. Washington has little patience with the idea of European weapons being pointed at Taiwan, as they undoubtedly would be. The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden have all spoken in favor of keeping the ban, and because the lifting of the ban would require a unanimous vote by the European Council, their dissent would be enough to keep the embargo in place. But France and Germany know how to throw their weight around. And the British, previously aligned with the U.S. position, have shown signs of changing their minds.

For Taiwan, the lifting of the EU-China arms ban could only send one signal. Taiwan lives with the daily intimidation of its democratic institutions by the People's Republic of China. The prospect of EU-made submarines and missiles being the tools of this intimidation should be out of the question.

China has changed in the last decade, but no human rights advocacy organization would say that China meets the standards of political and civil freedom that Europe expects of its friends. China continues to persecute Christians and pro-democracy activists. Amnesty International says that not only are many of the original Tiananmen protesters still in jail, but Beijing is also still imprisoning those who call for an independent inquiry into the massacre. Lifting the ban would mean saying to those people, and to all those in China pressing for democratic reform, that Europe would rather arm those who would repress them.

The guiding logic of the ban is ethical: It is a statement of revulsion. The pressure to lift it is commercial, pure and simple. Arms manufacturers have succeeded in passing on to their governments a degree of detachment that has no place in the EU's relationship with China.

Those who argue that trade with China encourages an economic development that will ultimately force political change are badly mistaken. Sell them butter; guns are different. China's booming economy may eventually provoke political change, but for now it acts more to conceal the extent to which China's political culture remains rooted in repression and political violence.

We will not hurry the arrival of democracy in China by selling guns to those who would repress it. Until the respect for human rights and civil and political freedoms in China advances by a quantum leap, the position of the EU should be unequivocal. The Dutch presidency of the European Council, when asked to consider the lifting of the EU-China arms ban, must resist sending any other message.

Graham Watson is a British member of the European Parliament, where he is leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.