Int'l Herald Tribune

EU feels the heat on China embargo

By Judy Dempsey
International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, March 23, 2005

BERLIN The European Union's plans to lift its arms embargo against China by June appeared to be collapsing Tuesday after months of intense lobbying by the United States and a negative reaction to China's recent decision to respond militarily to any moves by Taiwan toward independence.

The climbdown will be a serious embarrassment for the EU's efforts to forge a common policy over an issue that had already divided the 25 member states, according to diplomats and security analysts.

"There was really no calm strategic discussion over what the EU wanted to achieve from lifting the embargo," said Katinka Barysch, a security expert at the Center for European Reform in London. "It has been badly handled."

The issue was supposed to be on the agenda for an EU summit meeting in June, but officials say the decision could be delayed until next year.

The delay will deal a heavy blow to France and Germany, which at an EU summit meeting in October 2003 had started the campaign to lift the embargo as soon as possible. Britain, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries were reluctant to rush the decision.

The EU imposed the arms embargo in 1989 after the killing of student-led demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

"It was always going to be controversial when the EU was going to lift the embargo," said Gudrun Wacker, director of the Asia department at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "It had become almost from the beginning an institutional tussle inside the EU because whichever country was holding the EU presidency, that country did not want to be the one that presided over lifting the embargo."

A different member state takes over the EU's presidency every six months.

In recent weeks, a number of factors worked against France and Germany's campaign to lift the embargo. These included the following:

Intense pressure on Europe from President George W. Bush, who has been fully supported across the political spectrum and by the Senate and the House. Bush openly told EU leaders on his visit to Brussels last month how he strongly opposed lifting the embargo, saying it would undermine regional stability and the military balance.

Threats by the U.S. Congress to stop any technology transfer to Europe at a time when Europe continues to lag behind the United States in this field. "We were told there could be consequences if the EU lifted the embargo," said Werner Hoyer, foreign affairs spokesman for the Free Democrats, a liberal opposition party in Germany that wants the ban to remain in force.

Wavering in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition government as the Greens, the junior partner, start to question the timing for lifting the embargo.

Leading Green officials said China had not sufficiently improved its human rights record to warrant an end to the embargo. Germany's opposition parties, meanwhile, are preparing to put the issue to a vote next month in the German Parliament, in a move that could split and further weaken Schröder's Social Democratic-led coalition.

Last week's visit to Washington by Annalisa Giannella, the EU's special envoy for security issues, who works with Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief. The visit showed how the embargo was a thorn in the trans-Atlantic relationship. "That visit was never going to be easy," said an EU foreign minister who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Giannella was supposed to explain the EU's stance on China, but Washington was in no mood to be convinced."

China's decision last week to adopt an anti-secession law intended to stop any independence moves by Taiwan, giving countries like Britain, Sweden, Ireland and the Netherlands enough reasons to delay a decision to lift the embargo at least until next year. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain said China's decision had "created quite a difficult political environment."

Diplomats said the Chinese decision would allow Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who takes over the EU presidency from next July until December, to postpone the decision until next year. Even then, it is not certain that Britain's successors, Austria and then Finland, will want to oversee such a decision.

French officials tried Tuesday to play down any suggestion that Britain was lobbying to delay the lifting of the arms embargo. Hervé Ladsous, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, repeated his country's ambition to see the embargo lifted as soon as possible, arguing that June remained a target deadline.

"There is absolutely no change in France's position," Ladsous said. "The lifting of the Chinese arms embargo remains a priority for the president," he said, referring to Jacques Chirac.

Ladsous acknowledged that the agreement by EU leaders last December to lift the embargo had not been a binding date. But he argued that "in practice there was an understanding" that the move would be finalized in the first six months of the year, when Luxembourg holds the EU presidency.

Ladsous rejected the notion that a lifting of the embargo would upset regional stability in Asia.

"We have to get away from this absurd situation in which we put China in the same category as Burma and other countries," he said. "We've always said that lifting the embargo would not result in a quantitative or a qualitative increase in arms exports to China. It would be a symbolic move."

One senior French official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, admitted that the British reactions in the past weeks "place a question mark on whether we can wrap it up before the middle of the year - we haven't got much time."

As the United States pressured EU member states to retain the embargo, China, too, had lobbied hard to persuade countries to lift it. A Swedish security expert, who asked not to be identified because he was advising the government, said Tuesday that Chinese officials had warned Swedish and Finnish companies over possible negative repercussions if their governments continued to support the embargo. He said the giant telecommunications companies Ericsson of Sweden and Nokia of Finland had a large presence in China and were even hoping for more business as the Chinese economy expanded.

France and Germany, which have substantial economic interests in China, were also hoping to reap benefits if the embargo was lifted. "The truth is that from the economic point of view, China is very important to Germany," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Greens/Free European Alliance group in the European Parliament. The group is staunchly against lifting the embargo.

Diplomats and security experts agree, however, that the arms embargo was never sufficiently strict to prevent the export of weapons to China under special license. "The embargo was open to interpretation," said Mark Bromley, arms transfers expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Paris.